Updated: May 16, 2022
“What ho!" I said. "What ho!" said Motty. "What ho! What ho!" "What ho! What ho! What ho!" After that it seemed rather difficult to go on with the conversation.
Welcome to my WHAT HO! blog page. Bertie Wooster may not have been able to continue his conversation, but we’re only just starting ours. May it prove long, interesting and fruitful.
As you’ll see elsewhere on this website, ‘What Ho!’ is an ongoing series of pamphlets exploring Wodehousean themes. These will complement my Pelham Grenville Wodehouse trilogy of books, where there often wasn’t room to discuss these fascinating topics at length. And so, in the coming months, I’ll be looking at subjects like Food, Love, Money, Hollywood, Sport, Family, Crime and Class – with more to follow. Check in at www.whatho.club for the latest news on what’s available.
First though, I’d like to briefly examine what “What Ho!” actually means, as it’s a question often asked but rarely answered to the enquirer’s satisfaction.
Basically, it’s a form of interrogative greeting, like “What’s up?”, “How’s it going?” or “What news?” as in Bertie’s attempt to open a conversation with the severely hung-over Motty, Lord Pershore in ‘Jeeves and the Unbidden Guest’ quoted above. Alternatively, in ‘The Wigmore Venus’, he uses it as a sort of Pythagorian (but not Abba-esque) “Aha!”:
Personally, I can’t tell one picture from another as a rule, but I’m bound to say, the moment I set eyes on this, I said to myself, ‘What ho!’ or words to that effect.
A third use sees it as a declaration, indicating “I’m here!” or even “Listen!”. The very first word of the magnificent Anglo Saxon epic Beowulf written around 700-1000 A.D. - ‘Hwaet!’ – uses it in this sense, as does the sailor early on in Shakespeare’s Othello from early in the 17th century:
Sailor [within]: What, ho! what, ho! what, ho!
First Officer: A messenger from the galleys.
Enter a Sailor
Duke of Venice: Now, what's the business?
Taken in context, the sailor is both announcing he’s arrived, and he has something to say. So although the phrase has come to be closely associated with Wodehouse, it has form going way back to the very dawn of English literature.
Another common misconception is that it was only used by the upper classes. Here’s a childhood memory from the Midlands:
I grew up in Wednesfield, Staffordshire in the 1950s and 60s where “What ho” was a very common greeting between young working class lads although it was usually pronounced as “Worro”.
In fact, the first time Wodehouse uses it (in a 1903 poem ‘The Reform of Murphy’s Rents’), it’s spoken by a bunch of hooligans who delight in beating up policemen:
Him wot was on the beat before got on all right until He had a little argument one night with Ginger Bill, And in doo course to ’orspital that copper had to go, And then this other one arrived. We grinned and said “What ho!”
By the time Bertie and his fellow Drones get hold of it, it’s still slightly disrespectful, at least in the view of the small, shrimp-faced Sir Watkyn Basset
“Oh, what ho, Sir Watkyn!”
“Kindly do not address me in that familiar way, Wooster.”
And the Bassett is not alone. When Bertie tries to convince the eminent “janitor to the looney-bin” Sir Roderick Glossop that he (Bertie) is not off his trolley, his nervous opening gambit is “What ho! What ho! What ho!”, prompting “a sudden feeling that that was just the sort of thing I had been warned not to say.” But where did Wodehouse get it from? Well, he knew his Shakespeare inside out and backwards, so that’s a possibility (as well as Othello, it also features in Romeo and Juliet). Or he might have heard it (as fellow novelist James Joyce did) in the hugely popular 1899 music-hall song ‘What ho! She bumps!’, whose lyrics are packed with sexual innuendo. A propos of which we might close with a 2015 story from Australia which brought news that the owner of a personalized car registration plate “WHAT HO” had been fined A$100 for displaying “an obscene or indecent combination” of letters. All in the mind of the beholder, I’d say.