Whom dat?

Don’t be silly, Isabel. It’s not “Whom dat?” it’s “Who dat?” Like in this chant/cheer for the New Orleans Saints.

Who dat? Who dat?
Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints?

This sports chant is only the most-recent “who dat” incarnation. Apparently the phrase dates back to minstrel shows and was even a military gag in WWII.

Back in WWII, U.S. fighter squadron pilots would often fly under radio silence.
But things get lonely up there in the cockpit, so after a while there’d be a crackle of static as someone keyed his mike.
Then a disembodied voice would reply, “Who dat?”
An answer would come, “Who dat say who dat?”
And another, “Who dat say who dat when ah say who dat?”
After a few rounds of this, the squadron commander would grab his microphone and yell, “Cut it out, you guys!”
A few moments of silence.
Then… “Who dat?”

What started as a racial (African-American) or regional (Cajun) joke or slur has moved beyond that, I’d say, although opinions surely vary. But how did we get here and what even made me think of “whom”? I blame Peter Gunn.

This is the TV-screenshot of the question that Peter posed to Zoltar, the arcade-machine front for a shadowy underworld figure reknowned for arson.

Zoltar in a Manitou Springs arcade in Colorado.

Really? He wrote,”Whom do I see?” in a note to the low-level, low-life henchman of a dangerous, arsonistic thug? Are you kiddin’ me?

Apparently not: In 1958, evidently neither the actor playing Pete nor the screenwriter found anything out of the ordinary in this usage. The style of this show stands up pretty well, but every once in a while something gives away its age. Something like this note.

I understand the grammar, but I hardly ever use “whom.” It sounds too formal: pretentious, even. I’ll rewrite sentences to avoid it if for some reason I feel I can’t use “who.”

I’d use it in a set phrase like “To whom it may concern.” It sounds right in the famous line from For Whom the Bell Tolls by Hemingway (written in 1940). It slides right past in a verse commonly used as a doxology (written, ahem, in 1674): Praise God from whom all blessings flow.

All those sound fine: even right and proper. But, um, maybe that’s all. “Whom” just doesn’t sound right to me in many other applications.

To whom should I give this? No, no – Who should I give this to? Who do you want me to give this to?

Whom did Frank hire? No, no – Who did Frank hire?

And so on. Other than a handful of formal uses, maybe “whom” has had its day. Kind of like “take.”

Who dat who write whom?

No one I know. Well, no one except for Pete.

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14 Responses to Whom dat?

  1. Tom Watson says:

    That reminds me of the old Dixieland song.
    Who dat up there who’s dat down there
    Who dat up there who dat well down there
    Who’s dat up there, sayin’ who’s dat down there
    When I see you up there well who’s dat down there

    Who dat inside who’s dat outside
    Who’s dat inside who dat well outside
    Who’s dat inside, singin’ who’s dat outside
    When I see up there well who’s dat out there

    Button up your lip there big boy
    Stop answerin’ back
    Give you a tip there big boy
    Announce yourself Jack

    Who dat up there who’s dat down there
    Who dat up there who dat, well down there
    Who’s dat up there, singin’ who’s dat down there
    When I see you up there you bum
    Well who’s dat down there!


  2. barbara carlson says:

    Sentences ending in “to” — !!!

    Lawd-a-Mercy! Did I read your sentences right(ly)?

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Barbara – 🙂 You did indeed. A lot of the “rules” we learned in school are now considered obsolete. That’s one of them – but I don’t do it egregiously in writing. If I can avoid it without sounding awkward, I do.

  3. Jim Taylor says:

    Sometimes it’s’ not possible to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition. Consider this story. After his child went to bed, the father found a storybook downstairs and took it up to the child’s bedroom, to read. And the child asked, “What did you bring that book I didn’t want to be read to out of up for?”

    Jim T

  4. As I recall, “whom” is the form of “who” used when the individual is an object of a preposition: as in, “to whom shall I turn?” It would appear that such niceties are eroding.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Laurna – Indeed, the niceties are eroding. I figure it’s OK (well, except for losing the bring/take and come/go distinction, which is NOT OK) – after all, consider how much our usage has changed since Shakespeare’s day.

  5. John Whitman says:

    Isabel – sometimes ‘whom’ just sounds better in a sentence than the sentence does using ‘who’.

    With respect to Peter Gunn, if you like old TV shows and movies, might I suggest watching or re-watching “Bullitt” with Steve McQueen. Every time he has to get out of his car to find a payphone or go into a corner store to use their phone, I am reminded of how much things have changed since 1968.

    With respect to “Who dat?” in WW II, I wonder what the German Luftwaffe pilots thought about it, other than that they knew it was Americans and not Commonwealth pilots they were hearing.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      John – LOL – I know what you mean. You see people racing off to warn someone in-person instead of, oh, I don’t know, calling them. The world she has changed.

  6. “Whom” has indeed had its day, and probably most English speakers can’t remember when to use it (or when it used to be used), if they ever knew. My favourite evolution of this sort is the use of “so” as a conjunction. It is handy and clear, so I use it.

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