Give 'em "what for". Show 'em "what for".

Posted by R. Berg on January 21, 2002

In Reply to: Give 'em "what for". Show 'em "what for". posted by Word Camel on January 21, 2002

: Does anyone know where this phrase come from? I've wondered for years.

I don't know where, but Partridge says when:
"'give what for'; occ. 'what's what.' (With dative.) To beat, thrash; scold, reprimand: coll., the former C. 19-20, the latter C.20 and gen. jocular" (A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English).

In my imagination, it started in a dialogue between a parent and a child:

MA: Johnny, go feed the chickens and then bring in a load of firewood.
JOHNNY: What for?
MA: Do it or I'll give you what for!