What Does the Saying ‘What in Tarnation’ Mean? Who Says That Phrase?

coffee mug with rendering of famous internet meme "what in tarnation"

The phrase "what in tarnation" is making a comeback thanks to an internet meme (artist rendering by TheSmokies.com)

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I think I learned to curse from Looney Tunes. 

Not the actual literal words of course. Certainly, standards of the day wouldn’t allow for children’s characters to say any of George Carlin’s seven dirty words. 

But the sentiment, the idea of flowery exclamations of anger and frustration seeping out in words that were too powerful to be held back … I think I got that from Looney Tunes. 

I think Looney Tunes got a lot of its inspiration from curse words that could be worked into polite conversation in the Southeastern United States. Then, they brought them to the rest of the United States like McDonald’s did with sweet tea.

Foghorn Leghorn was a great euphemistic cusser, though today some of his choices are problematic at best.

Sylvester the pussycat wasn’t Southern, of course. But the muttering under his breath and trademark Sufferin’ Succotash made alliterative word play cool. 

And Yosemite Sam? He was the king, of course. His mouth was as trigger-happy as his hands. He didn’t actually say the words I wasn’t supposed to say, but we all knew what he meant. 

This brings us to one of Sam’s favorites: Tarnation. 

Yosemite Sam and Bugs Bunny at a movie premiere
The phrase “what in tarnation” is most commonly said by Yosemite Sam, pictured left with Bugs Bunny at a movie premiere (archive photo by Featureflash Photo Agency/shutterstock.ccom)

What in tarnation?

Tarnation is a great word if you can pull it off. I can’t, but Sam could. And so could my grandmother who certainly learned of the word before Yosemite Sam was a glint in Mel Blanc’s eye. 

Like you, I’ve heard the word my whole life and had the gist of it since I was a boy. In fact, it’s one of those words I could use correctly in a sentence but would be stumped if you asked me to define it.

The dictionary isn’t much help. Tarnation, it says, is used to express exasperation, frustration and incredulity. But that doesn’t really tell us what it means. 

What does the saying ‘what in tarnation’ mean? 

Literally? It means eternal damnation.

According etymonline.com, tarnation is a combination of darnation and tarnal.

It was first used as a euphemism for damnation. The word tarnal is an early mild curse that served as a clipped form of the word eternal.

Think of Shakespeare using the phrase eternal villain in Othello. It’s a great way to skirt around an accusation of blasphemy. 

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Judge and writer Royall Tyler
Some sources site Royall Tyler’s play for the usage of the word tarnation. Tyler was a U.S. judge and writer (photo courtesy of Wikipedia/public domain)

Where does the saying ‘what in tarnation’ come from?

Tarnation is an American English word from the late 1700s. 

The internet, unsurprisingly, disagrees with who first coined the term. One source cites Royall Tyler’s play “Contrast” and says tarnation is used three times along with the word tarnal. However, I’d never heard of Royall Tyler or the play “Contrast” and had to search for them on Wiki to make sure they weren’t making all that up.

I’m pleased to report Royall Tyler is real and he’s spectacular. The jawline. The pomp. The hair. Oh my goodness, the hair. It’s like a 1790s Don King. You only get to make up words like tarnation if you have hair like that. Thick, mostly white with little shade of pepper, brushed straight back and up.

Honestly, give me four to six months and a couple of cans of product and I could go as Royall Tyler for Halloween. I may have to do a 23andme just to see if I’ve got some royal bloodline after all. 

Other internet sources claim the word first appeared in writing in 1784, which may eliminate our spectacularly coiffed man Royal, who didn’t write “Contrast” until 1787.

The truth is, we may never know where in the tarnation the word came from. 

Is tarnation a Southern word?

The internet tells me the early days of tarnation began in New England and over the years the word migrated south.

Today, I’m told, you’re unlikely to hear many New Englanders using it. However, it is still in use in the South, making it a Southern word. 

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Do people still say tarnation?

They do, but I question for how much longer. Not many people in my generation can pull off a good tarnation and when they do, I have to think it’s mostly used ironically.

I can’t say that my grandmother still actively uses tarnation, but I wouldn’t find it shocking. In fact, most of the people who use it learned it in a pop culture context and not at the knee of their parents or grandparents. And so, I expect the use of the word is going away.

Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam and Porky Pig were old when I was a boy. But we had Saturday morning cartoons and watched them all over and over again. 

My kids have seen Space Jam but when I try to introduce them to Elmer Fudd and Daffy Duck, there’s little to no interest. I’m not sure if I gave them a picture of Yosemite Sam they could tell me his name.

And so I think the biggest carrier of the tarnation legacy is mostly going by the wayside … Hardly tarnal after all.

smiling shiba inu dog
A meme featuring a Shiba Inu dog has made the phrase popular again (photo by Irina Vaneeva/shutterstock.com)

Is there any hope for tarnation?  

Ah yes. Welcome, my friends to the internet where the good times keep on rolling even if nobody especially wants them to. Tarnation is alive and well with the youngsters. And we can thank the tarnation meme. 

What’s that, you say? A meme is “a humorous image, video, piece of text, etc., that is copied (often with slight variations) and spread rapidly by internet users.”

The tarnation meme is a picture of a Shiba Inu dog in a cowboy hat, just like Yosemite Sam. The dog has a somewhat puzzled and slightly constipated look. The caption frequently reads “What in Tarnation?” Occasionally what is spelled phonetically like “wot.”

It’s not as good as the cat standing in snow meme, but it’s still a classic.  

Praise be to the internet, tarnation is saved for future generations to enjoy. 

What are some other old-timey phrases that are still around?

“Sam hill” is one that leaps to mind. As in, “What in the sam hill is going on?”

There’s also “dadgummit” and “dagnabit”. But I refuse to believe anyone is seriously using those words anymore outside of a Mel Brooks production.

There are the 20s-era standards “gee willikers” and “leapin’ lizards”, but no one outside of the production of Annie has said those in 50 years.

Sherman Potter on M*A*S*H* used to have a bunch of them, so if you grew up watching M*A*S*H* as I did you might let out an occasional Horse Hockey!

But I think for better or worse, most of those euphemistic words are going by the wayside. Except of course, when saved by the internet. I think, for the most part, we just say the actual curse word anymore. 

Do you use this phrase? Let us know in the comments.

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John Gullion

John Gullion, Managing Editor at the Citizen Tribune, is a freelance contributor for TheSmokies.com LLC – the parent company of TheSmokies.com and HeyOrlando.com.

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