Or what?

A Meg Biddle cartoon in the June 2015 Funny Times:


Yes-no questions with the tag or what? are regularly used to emphatically assert the truth of the questioned proposition. So

Is this a great country, or what?

has the effect of proclaiming that this is indeed a great country. But the question has at least one other reading, merely asking for an alternative answer to Is this a great country?, and that’s the reading Biddle is playing with in the cartoon.

From the American Heritage Idioms Dictionary on or what? (as quoted on the dictionary.com site):

A phrase following a statement that adds emphasis or suggests an option. For example, in Is this a good movie or what? the phrase asks for confirmation or agreement. However, it also may ask for an alternative, as in Is this book a biography or what? In the 1700s it generally asked for a choice among a series of options, and it still has this function, as in In what does John excel? in imagination? in reasoning powers? in mathematics? or what?

The choice among alternatives is pretty clearly the oldest use. When there are only two choices, we get the asking-for-an-alternative use: Is this book a biography or what? ‘Is this book a biography? if not, what is it?’ From there, we get to the affirmation use by implicature in a context where a negative answer to the yes-no question is not imaginable, so the alternatives collapse to one; compare the strongly affirmative:

Is this a great country, or is this a great country?

Meg Biddle. Her first time on this blog. She describes the content of her website as:

paintings/ cartoon art/ social studies with an emphasis on pop-culture, political satire & ridiculous cats

One more Biddle:


X whisperer ‘someone able to understand and communicate with Xs’ apparently originates with the 1995 Nicholas Evans novel The Horse Whisperer and the 1998 drama film (starring Robert Redford) made from it. The formula quickly was turned into a snowclonelet composite, with a wide range of nouns in the position of X, including the title of the 2005-10 tv show The Ghost Whisperer.

(If you’ve had experience with geese, you’ll understand why the woman in #2 doesn’t seem at all enthusiastic about her position.)

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