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What to my surprise

Posted by R. Berg on August 04, 2009 at 15:56

In Reply to: What to my surprise posted by Glenn Golden on August 04, 2009 at 09:28:

: Hello,

: Anyone have pointers or ideas as to the origin and history of the locution "what to my surprise", as in
: While riding in my Cadillac
: What to my surprise
: A little Nash Rambler was following me
: About one third my size

: -- "Beep, Beep" (American version) song recorded by The Playmates,
: Roulette Records, 1958.

: In my experience, the idiom is almost always used whimsically, and with an air of slight condescention, just as above. A friend disagrees and thinks it is simply a British variation of the basic phrase, "to my surprise", connoting nothing more.

: Can anyone say more about this, or point me to a source that might specialize in the history of such variations? Opinions as to differential "flavor" would also be welcomed, esp. from anyone with knowledge of both British and American English.

: Thank you,

: Glenn
: Boulder, Colorado, USA

First of all, if this passage were prose rather than a song lyric, punctuating it correctly would require putting a comma after the exclamation "What." That is, "What" and "To my surprise" are separate syntactic elements, not parts of a single phrase. In fiction, you might see "What! To my surprise, a little Nash Rambler . . ."

Then, songwriters often insert words to fill out the beats in a line, like "Well" or "Now." "What" may be there for that reason.

"To my surprise" is an idiomatic construction rarely used nowadays, in a class with "To my delight" and "To my shame." ~rb