what’s eating: Idiom Meaning and Origin

What does ‘what's eating’ mean?

The idiom "what's eating" means to be bothered or upset by something. It is used to inquire about the cause of someone's distress or annoyance.

Idiom Explorer

The Enigmatic Hunger

What's eating is an idiom commonly used in English to express concern or curiosity about someone's emotional state or behavior. It originated in American English, but its exact origins are unclear.

The phrase "what's eating" combines the pronoun "what" with the verb "eating". However, the word "eating" in this context does not refer to literal consumption. Instead, it is used metaphorically to represent something troubling or bothering someone. The idiom is often followed by a noun phrase or an explicit question, such as "what's eating you?" or "What's eating John?".

The idiom can be traced back to the early 20th century, with the first recorded usage in the early 1920s. It may have emerged as a slang expression in African American Vernacular English (AAVE) before entering mainstream usage.

The figurative meaning of "what's eating" is often used to inquire about the cause of a person's unhappiness, irritability, or unusual behavior. It suggests that something mentally or emotionally troubling is affecting the person, causing them distress or discomfort. However, it does not provide specific details about the underlying issue.

Context plays a crucial role in interpreting the true intent behind the phrase. Additionally, the idiom may be modified to fit different grammatical constructions, such as "what's eating away at you?" or "what's eating him/her/them?".

I ate my words, causing frustration and confusion.

What's eating you?

"What's eating you?" is a related idiom that specifically asks someone about the cause of their distress or emotional state. When someone asks "What's eating you?", they are expressing concern and curiosity about what may be troubling the person they are addressing. It implies that the person's emotional state is affecting their overall well-being and perhaps their interactions with others. The idiom seeks to understand the underlying issue and provide support or assistance if possible.

what's the matter?

"What's the matter?" is another idiomatic expression related to "what's eating". It is used to inquire about someone's distress, discomfort, or unhappiness. Similar to "what's eating", "what's the matter?" expresses concern and curiosity about another person's emotional state. It is a direct question that seeks to understand the cause of their distress or discomfort.

what's going on?

"What's going on?" is a common phrase used to inquire about a situation or event. While it may not directly connect to the idiom "what's eating", it shares the same conversational tone and purpose of exploring what is happening. Like "what's eating", "what's going on?" reflects curiosity and a desire for information. It seeks to understand the situation or context in which something is occurring, providing an opportunity for dialogue and discussion.

"what's eating" is an idiom commonly used in informal conversations to express concern or curiosity about someone's emotional state or behavior. Its origins remain uncertain, but it has been in usage since the early 20th century. The figurative meaning of the idiom centers around inquiring about the cause of distress or discomfort without specifying the underlying issue. Additionally, related idioms such as "what's eating you?", "what's the matter?", and "what's going on?" further explore different aspects of concern and curiosity in interpersonal interactions.

Example usage

Examples of how the idiom "what's eating" can be used in a sentence:

  • What's eating John? He seems really upset today.
  • I don't know what's eating Sarah, but she's been acting strange lately.
  • Hey, what's eating you? You've been quiet all evening.

More "verb" idioms