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What to my surprise

Posted by Smokey Stover on August 04, 2009 at 16:12

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

I can't answer your question, but I have looked through all the whats in the Oxford English Dictionary. I found nothng directly helpful. There is a section on "what" used in exclamatory fashion, but I don't think that applies here. I lean to the view that "what" is used here elliptically, as though it were followed by an omitted "happened" or "happened, is that". In this theory, one would say (replacing the omitted words) "What happened, to my surprise, was that a little Nash Rambler . . . " You could change the word order to say, "What, to my surprise, happened was that . . . "

You may not like the ellipsis theory, but it's the best I can do, and possibly totally wrong.

Incidentally, Nash Rambler is almost redundant. The Rambler was not originally produced by Nash, but when Nash was folded into American Motots, its name was attached to the Rambler. Or else I'm wrong.