Understanding the Idiom: "give someone what for" - Meaning, Origins, and Usage

Idiom language: English
  • give someone a piece of one's mind
  • let someone have it

The origins of this idiom are unclear, but it is believed to have originated in British English during the 19th century. Over time, it has become a popular expression in many English-speaking countries around the world.

When using this idiom, it is important to note that it can be used both positively and negatively. In some cases, giving someone what for may be seen as a necessary form of discipline or correction. However, in other cases, it may be seen as overly harsh or unfair.

Origins and Historical Context of the Idiom “give someone what for”

The phrase “give someone what for” is a common idiom used in English to describe reprimanding or punishing someone severely. The origins of this expression are not entirely clear, but it is believed to have originated in Britain during the 19th century.

During this time, there was a growing sense of social order and discipline, with many people advocating for stricter laws and punishments. As a result, phrases like “give someone what for” became popular ways to express the idea of holding others accountable for their actions.

Over time, the phrase has evolved to encompass a wider range of meanings, including giving someone a good talking-to or putting them in their place. Today, it remains a popular expression that is used by people all over the world.

Despite its popularity, however, it is important to remember that idioms like “give someone what for” can be confusing or even offensive to those who are unfamiliar with them. As such, it is always important to use these expressions carefully and with consideration for others.

Usage and Variations of the Idiom “give someone what for”

When it comes to idioms, there are often variations in usage that can make them even more interesting. The idiom “give someone what for” is no exception. This phrase is commonly used to describe a situation where one person is giving another person a stern lecture or reprimand. However, there are many different ways that this idiom can be used depending on the context.

Variations in Meaning

One variation of this idiom is when it’s used to describe a physical altercation. In this case, “give someone what for” means to physically beat up or assault someone. Another variation involves using the phrase as a way of saying that someone deserves punishment or consequences for their actions.

Usage Examples

To better understand how this idiom can be used in different contexts, here are some examples:

– When my little brother broke my favorite toy, I gave him what for and made sure he knew not to touch my things again.

– After losing the game, our coach really gave us what for during practice the next day.

– If you don’t start studying harder, your grades will suffer and you’ll definitely get given what for by your parents.

– When I caught my neighbor stealing from me, I decided to give him what for by reporting him to the police.

Variation Meaning
Physical Altercation To physically beat up or assault someone.
Punishment/Consequences To deserve punishment or consequences for one’s actions.

Synonyms, Antonyms, and Cultural Insights for the Idiom “give someone what for”


– Give a piece of one’s mind

– Dress down

– Chew out

– Reprimand

– Scold

These synonyms are often used interchangeably with “give someone what for” to convey the idea of reprimanding or scolding someone severely.


– Praise

– Compliment

– Applaud

While “give someone what for” is used to express disapproval or anger towards someone’s actions, these antonyms convey positive feedback or approval.

Cultural Insights:

The origin of this idiom can be traced back to British English where it was commonly used in the military context to mean punishing or disciplining soldiers. However, over time it has evolved to have a broader meaning and is now used in everyday language to express strong criticism or punishment towards anyone who deserves it.

It is important to note that this idiom may not be appropriate in all cultures and situations. In some cultures, direct confrontation may be seen as impolite or disrespectful. Therefore, it is essential to understand cultural nuances before using this idiom in communication.

Practical Exercises for the Idiom “give someone what for”

In order to fully grasp the meaning and usage of the idiom “give someone what for”, it is important to practice using it in various situations. Below are some practical exercises that can help you become more comfortable with this expression.

Exercise 1: Role Play

Find a partner and take turns acting out scenarios where one person needs to give another person a stern talking-to. Use the idiom “give someone what for” in your dialogue, making sure to use proper intonation and emphasis on the phrase.

Exercise 2: Writing Prompts

Write short stories or paragraphs using the idiom “give someone what for”. Try to incorporate different contexts and situations, such as a parent scolding their child or a boss reprimanding an employee.

Situation Sentence Example
A teacher giving a student feedback on their poor performance. “I’m going to have to give you what for if you don’t start putting more effort into your studies.”
A coach motivating their team before an important game. “We’re going up against tough competition today, but we’re not backing down. Let’s go out there and give them what for!”
A friend confronting another friend about their bad behavior. “I’ve had enough of your excuses. It’s time I gave you what for so that you understand how much your actions are affecting those around you.”
An employee receiving criticism from their boss during a performance review. “Your work has been subpar lately, and I need to give you what for so that you understand the importance of meeting our company’s standards.”

By practicing these exercises, you will become more confident in using the idiom “give someone what for” in your everyday conversations. Remember to always use proper context and tone when using this expression.

Common Mistakes to Avoid When Using the Idiom “give someone what for”

When using idioms in language, it is important to understand their meaning and usage to avoid making common mistakes. The idiom “give someone what for” is no exception.

Avoiding Literal Interpretations

One of the most common mistakes when using this idiom is interpreting it literally. The phrase does not mean physically giving someone an object or item. Instead, it means to scold or reprimand someone severely.

Using Appropriate Context

The context in which this idiom is used can also affect its meaning. It is important to use appropriate context when using this phrase to convey the intended message effectively. For example, if used in a formal setting, such as a business meeting, it may come across as unprofessional or inappropriate.

Mistake Correction
“I gave him what for by giving him a gift.” “I gave him what for by scolding him severely.”
“She gave her boss what for during a job interview.” “She respectfully addressed her concerns during the job interview.”
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