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What to my surprise

Posted by Smokey Stover on August 05, 2009 at 04:58

In Reply to: What to my surprise posted by RRC on August 04, 2009 at 16:17:

: : : 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

: I'm afraid I'm going to disagree with the need for repunctuation in this old fashioned construction, cf ... what to my suprise did I see... who to my surprise was at the door... when to my surprise did they arrive...
: OTOH, the song also contains the lyric:
: "And we took off with gust."
: The lyricist isn't afraid of leaving out some minor words (and possibly making some up) so the song will fit the meter and rhyme (dust).

...........
Well, while we're disagreeing, I'm going to say that the lyricist has used "what" in an idiomatic way which doesn't exist. In other words, I think it's wrong, a lapsus grammaticus. There are ways to repair it, but the repairs take it out of the realm of idioms. "What, to my surprise, ..." can be followed by many things, such as ". . . did I see that morning, but. . ." Or possibly, ". . . was she wearing on her head but . . . " I have twice used "but" in my made-up examples. Perhaps this is indicative of something besides my lack of imagination. Perhaps there is an idiom, but certainly not the one found in the poem.
SS