What on Earth?!


Andrea in Italy wants to know the meaning of the phrase: “What on Earth…?”

We often use the phrase “What on Earth…?” and a similar phrase, “What in the world…?,” when we want to express surprise, confusion, or anger.  The Earth is the planet that humans live on, but this expression has nothing to do with the planet.  You can use it alone (“What on Earth?”) or as the beginning of a longer sentence (“What on Earth do you mean?”)

Let’s say (let’s use as an example) that your co-worker comes to work wearing shorts and a T-shirt, when he normally wears a business suit.  You may ask him, “What on Earth are you wearing that for?” or “Why in the world are you wearing that?”  You’re expressing your surprise and confusion, and you’re asking for an explanation.

You can use all of the following, depending on what you want to express:
What on Earth…?” Example:  “What on Earth was I thinking when I quit my job?”
Why on Earth…?” Example: “Why on Earth doesn’t Jeff have any hair?”
How on Earth…?” Example:  “How on Earth did you drive from New York to California in three days?”
Who on Earth…?” Example:  “Who on Earth put a boat in the swimming pool?”
Where on Earth…?” Example:  “Where on Earth are you going to buy a doghouse large enough for your dog?”
When on Earth…?” Example:  “When on Earth are you going to have time to learn to play the piano?  You work 80 hours a week!”

Let’s take another example:  It’s 3:00 in the morning and you’re sleeping when your friends knock on your door, laughing and making a lot of noise.  When you open the door, you may say, “What on Earth do you guys want at this hour?”  You’re asking them to explain themselves and at the same time, expressing your displeasure.  Actually, depending on how unhappy you are with your friend, you would probably use the phrase “What the hell…?” instead of “What on Earth…?”  “What the hell…?” is used in the same way, but expresses a much stronger feeling and is more likely to be used to express anger, rather than surprise or confusion.  Hell is the place where Christians and others believe bad people go after they die.  “What the hell…?”  is commonly used today, more so than “What on Earth…?,” which is considered a little old-fashioned.

When people are extremely (very) angry, they may use the phrase, “What the f__k?”  I don’t want to include an offensive word here in the blog, but I think everyone knows the four-letter “f-word” in English that is very offensive.  People use this when they are very upset, or sometimes jokingly with their close friends.  You might say, “Why the f__k did you have a wild party in my apartment when I was out of town?!  As no doubt you know, the four-letter “f-word” is one of the most offensive and insulting words in English and shouldn’t be used unless you are talking to very good friends, or if you want a punch in the nose.

Thanks, Andrea, for this question.

~ Lucy

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10 Responses to What on Earth?!

  1. emiliano says:

    That´s very clear Lucy, I understand it perfectly well.
    Here we say something similar but different word, as we use to say “devils” instead of earth or hell. One expressions should be:
    “Pero quien diablos llama a estas horas” (But who devils is calling at those houres) or may be “Quien diablos te crees que eres …..” …..to me is
    difficult to translate……it should be “Who devils do you think you are to do this or that to me”.
    May be “What on Earth” is very polite to spanish people, as we use to speak more natural and less polite than english-speaking people do.

    In Madrid, people say that f-word every moment, without thinking, we are not concious of saying it so frecuently and may be it sounds very
    strong for outsiders but isn´t the same way you or other people outside Madrid may use it.
    Sorry about the matter, but I was born in Madrid and yes, sometimes I used it too in spanish, not in English……never in English of course.

    Any news from Mr.Arnold?. We are awaiting him to congratulate you about your wonderful work.
    If he did, we want to know, please.

  2. Great Explanation Lucy.

    Thank you

  3. emiliano says:

    Well Lucy, going on with a few bad ways of speaking or telling somebody our bad temper about something he/her has done that disturb us, we use to mention the sexual atributes of men or woman in those sentences.
    Textually: “what the hell do you want”…../…..What c… (female) do you want…..or…. What b….s (male) do you want.
    So, as you may see our spanish lenguage is full of sexual references. Actually thousands.

    I think that all lenguages have that way of speaking but spanish in particular have lots of them. But what is worst that bad way of speaking is also male to the better and female to the worst. Very sexist.

    When something is very good or amusing the bad speaking is something similar to mentioning man atributes/great genial etc. (b…s). But if something is bad or boring the bad speaking is similar to mentioning female sex./boring not so good, etc. (c…) to say how much bad it was.

    i don´t really know if the English is similar, but spanish yes, it is, and females are very concerned about this way of using the lenguage very vulgar and rude, but what is worst so much sexist, the lenguage that children learn in the streets and that is difficult to eradicate once we ear it so often when we were growing.
    All the best to you my dear teacher, always using a so beautiful English lenguage, no sexist at all.

  4. Peter says:

    Good show Lucy,

    When it comes to English, you are not a Prof ,but a Pundit

    How about giving a more polite tone to the expression “what the f_k” and say what the heck ? like darn that is the polite version of da_n.

    for instance: Darn you man ,stop calling me . My phone is ringing off the hook( keep ringing )

    I guess Why on earth is still commonly used.


    P.S. Episod 500 is something. It tops all the previous episods . As ususal,You did a great job. In fact, you guys out did yourself.

  5. Peter says:


    I guess making mistake is my signiture move

  6. Peter says:

    A suggestion

    You guys always keep the podcast on the polite side. But ,I think we need to learn the dirty side of it as well. I guess nobody minds if you sometimes puddle around the dirty side.

  7. Julio says:

    Why on earth I can’t understand very well English by listening some piece of sound in a normal rate of speech?
    How the hell could I manage to achieve it?
    What the f–k happens in my head?

    Very funny, Dr. Lucy. Thank you very much.
    Best regards from Spain,
    Julio (Jack)

  8. Peter says:

    Dear Julio,

    Hang in there,

    Don’t be disappointed. Keep listening to Jeff ,and the dialogs over and over. Trust me, before too long ,It will come to you and you will get the hang of it.You can get yourself up to speed by relentless listening.The secret lies on Tenacity my friend,just be tenacious.


  9. Tania says:

    Hi ! It is funny. I had to look up in my slang dictionary all day long as you mention only a letter from the words .
    Julio ! Good explanation ! I feel the same .
    Thank you Peter for your encouragement sent to us .

    All the best for you all ,


  10. Julio says:

    Thank you, Peter, for your advise. You are very friendly. I’ll try on it. In fact, I am trying harder and harder, but usually after a few minutes I lose my concentration and some thoughts, in Spanish of course, come in my brain. Certainly, most chances I can understand to Jeff well enough, although not in a normal speech. However, if I try to listen from other resources, such as radio, television, etcetera, I have troubles to understand the most of them, even though I can get an overall idea.
    I know, anyway I have to carry on trying and not to fall into depression. It is a real challenge for me.
    In any case, Thanks again, my fiend Peter.
    Sincerely yours,

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