What's Going On: Definition, Meaning and Origin

Last Updated on
June 13, 2023

The idiom "what's going on" signifies a query about the current situation, events, or circumstances. In a broader context, it can also express confusion or surprise about a particular situation or occurrence.

In short:

"What's going on" is primarily an inquiry about current circumstances or events.

What Does "What's Going On" Mean?

The phrase embodies a sense of curiosity, seeking understanding or clarification about a particular situation or event. For instance, you might say, "What's going on" when you walk into a room where people are excitedly discussing something or if you encounter an unexpected situation that you don't immediately understand.

Let's explore its core meanings:

  • It is generally a question about the current situation or events.
  • It can express surprise or confusion about something unexpected or unfamiliar.
  • People often use it informally in spoken English.

Where Does "What's Going On" Come From?

Its exact origin is difficult to determine, as it is likely to have evolved naturally from the English language's basic rules of grammar and syntax. It became particularly well-known with Marvin Gaye's 1971 song titled "What's Going On, "which addressed social issues of the time. However, the phrase itself was in common usage long before the release of this song.

Historical Example

"There will be a post up with a beam across, And a rope with somebody dangling from it; As I'm coming from work I shall say, "What's going on?" I shall be told, "Jean Besme is hanging - that's all. Jean."

-Joseph Stevens Jones, 1856

10 Examples of "What's Going On" in Sentences

Here are some examples of using the idiom in sentences:

  • When she saw the crowd was riled up, she asked, "What's going on?"
  • I was on leave for a week. What's going on? Did I miss anything while I was away?
  • "What's going on with the project? Any updates?" the manager inquired.
  • "I walked into the room and immediately asked, 'What's going on?'"
  • As soon as she arrived, we asked her to spill the tea and tell us what was going on in the latest gossip.
  • "Can you tell me what's going on here?" the police officer asked the witness.
  • I hope all is well with you. And please let me know what's going on in your life.
  • "I'd like to understand what's going on before making a decision."
  • "What's going on in your mind? You seem lost in thought."
  • My car got repoed yesterday; that's what's going on.

Examples of "What's Going On" in Pop Culture

The phrase "what's going on" appears frequently in pop culture, often used to emphasize confusion, surprise, or a desire for understanding.

Let's examine some examples:

  • The song "What's Going On" by Marvin Gaye is a classic that interrogates societal issues, asking what's happening with the world.
  • The show What's Going On? (1954) was a game show where celebrity panelists questioned contestants to guess what event or activity they were describing.

Other/Different Ways to Say "What's Going On"

There are numerous alternative expressions that convey a similar meaning to "what's going on."

Here are some of them:

  • What's happening
  • What's up
  • What's the situation
  • What's the latest
  • What's the status
  • How's it going?
  • What are you up to?
  • What have you been doing?
  • How's everything?
  • What's new?

10 Frequently Asked Questions About "What's Going On":

  • What does "what's going on" mean?

"What's going on" is primarily an inquiry about the current situation, events, or circumstances. It can also express confusion or surprise about a particular occurrence.

  • How can I use "what's going on" in a sentence?

You can use "what's going on" as an inquiry about the present situation or to express surprise or confusion. For instance, "What's going on? Why are all these people here?"

  • Where does the idiom "what's going on" come from?

The phrase has been part of the English language for centuries and is commonly used in informal, conversational speech.

  • Is "what's going on" a formal expression?

No, "what's going on" is typically used in informal and conversational contexts.

  • Can "what's going on" express concern?

Yes, depending on the context and tone of voice, "what's going on" can express concern about a person or situation.

  • Can you use it in written communication?

While it's most common in spoken English, "what's going on" can also be used in informal written communication such as emails, messages, and social media posts.

  • Is there a difference between "what's going on" and "what's happening"?

There's no significant difference between the two phrases. Both are informal ways of asking about the current situation or events.

  • Can you use it to ask about a person's well-being?

Yes, when used with a particular tone and context, "what's going on" can be a way of asking about a person's emotional state or well-being.

  • Is "what's going on" commonly used in English?

Yes, "what's going on" is a common phrase in English, especially in conversational and informal contexts.

  • Can "what's going on" express surprise?

Yes, "what's going on" can express surprise, especially when the speaker encounters an unexpected situation or event.

Final Thoughts About "What's Going On"

The idiom "what's going on" refers to an informal inquiry about the current situation or events and can also express surprise or confusion. It is a versatile phrase used in a variety of contexts.

Here's a quick recap:

  • The phrase is used to ask about the current situation or events.
  • It can also be used to express surprise or confusion about a particular occurrence.
  • While it's typically used in informal and conversational contexts, it can also appear in informal written communication.

The idiom's flexibility and common usage in English-speaking cultures make it an essential part of everyday language.

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