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The meaning and origin of the expression: What you see is what you get

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What you see is what you get (wysiwyg)

Meaning

A computer screen display which appears on screen as it will be seen when printed on paper.

Origin

'Wysiwyg', pronounced 'whizzywig', is one of the best-known of all acronyms. It is generally supposed that the phrase 'what you see is what you get', the acronym 'wysiwyg' and the computer interface that they referred to emerged in close succession. This isn't the case; each of those elements has its own independent genesis.

Firstly, the phrase. 'What you see is what you get' is widely reported as being coined by Flip Wilson in performances as his drag character Geraldine in Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In in the late 1960s and then later on The Flip Wilson Show. Wilson certainly popularized the expression but it was already in general use before he adopted it as a catchphrase. A form of the phrase had been used by advertisers in the USA since at least the 1940s to indicate a straightforward, no-fuss form of trading. An advert for a Filmo Sportster camera in The Charleston Gazette came close to 'what you see is what you get' in November 1949:

You just sight, press a button and what you see, you get!

The precise phrase came into print some years later. For instance, this text from an advert for a house sale, in The Oakland Tribune, May 1966:

"So with the exception of landscaping and decorator furnishings, what you see is what you get."

Next comes the acronym 'wysiwyg'. This is generally thought to have been coined from the phrase and in reference to the graphical computer user interfaces that were emerging from Xerox PARC in the 1970s, but it isn't known who first used the acronym in that context. The first such reference that I can find comes surprisingly late, in Byte magazine, April 1982:

'What you see is what you get' (or WYSIWYG) refers to the situation in which the display screen portrays an accurate rendition of the printed page.

However, he first citation I have found of the acronym in print comes several years earlier in a non-computer related context. In January 1972, a student business competition was organised in Victoria, Texas and an account of it published in the local newspaper the Victoria Advocate on the 23rd January. Each team of students chose a name for the dummy businesses that they were going to manage. They were clearly encouraged to use acronyms, as the names they chose were:

SPOT - Selling Products of Tomorrow
LIFE - Lets Insure Future Existence
WYSIWYG - What You See Is What You Get

So, unless earlier computer related citations are found - which would that seem unlikely as the first wysiwyg software didn't emerge until after 1972 - the prize for coining 'wysiwyg' goes to a bunch of Texan high school kids, not to the boffins of Palo Alto.

What you see is what you get'What you see is what you get' later came to be used in a general context, often by individuals - like Flip Wilson's Geraldine - to describe themselves. It is shorthand for 'I may be a plain-speaking rough diamond, but I have no hidden agenda - let my reputation precede me', in the same way that people used to say 'take me as you find me'. The British entrepreneur Sir Alan Sugar is known for such an attitude and used 'What You See Is What You Get' as the title of his autobiography.

See other phrases that were coined in the USA.