Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Go figure

I’ve quite often seen the expression “Go figure”, and thought I knew what it meant.

Go figure!

Go figure!

Take, for example, the graphic on the right, which was recently posted on Facebook, referring to current fraud investigations in Britain. I would have thought that that was a classic example of the use of “Go figure”, meaning “Work out the significance or implications of these figures for yourself.”

But I’ve been told by the experts in American English in the alt.usage.english newsgroup that that is not what it means.

As one put it, “It means ‘this is surprising’, ‘I didn’t expect that to happen’.”

And another, “In my experience, it’s always used to express perplexity of some sort about something.”

Now in the example graphic on the right, there is no surprise at all. Britain has a Tory government, which can be expected to implement policies that favour the rich and screw the poor, so there is no element of surprise, and nothing to be perplexed about. It is exactly what one would expect. But I still think that “Go figure” is an appropriate comment, though it seems that most Americans wouldn’t.

I asked my wife what she thought it meant, and she said “Go and work it out?”

So it seems that it is an American metaphorical expression that has been exported, but in at least some places that it has been exported to, it has been misunderstood, and given the literal meaning rather than the metaphorical one.

It seems that the canonical explanation is here AUE: FAQ excerpt: “Go figure”:

This expands to “Go and figure it out”, and means: “The reasons for the fact just stated are unknown and possibly unknowable. You can waste your time thinking about what they might be, if you choose, but you’re not likely to accomplish anything.” (Kivi Shapiro)

“Go figure” comes from Yiddish Gey vays “Go know”. Leo Rosten, in The Joys of Yinglish (Penguin, 1989, ISBN 0-452-26534-6), says: “In English, one says, ‘Go and see [look, ask, tell]…’ Using an imperative without any link to a conjunction is pure Yiddish, no doubt derived from the biblical phrase, translated literally: ‘Go tell…’ ‘Go praise the Lord…’ (In English this becomes ‘Come, let us praise the Lord.’)”

Gianfranco Boggio-Togna writes: “The expressions an Italian is likely to use to show bafflement correspond exactly to “go figure”: va a capire=’go understand’ or va a sapere=’go know’. The va a idiom is common in colloquial Italian.”

Are my wife and I the only ones who have misunderstood it, or have others misunderstood it as well?


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4 thoughts on “Go figure

  1. My understanding is the same as yours Steve.

  2. Being thoughtful …YES…as an American…I did believe the phrase does have that connotation for me.

  3. As an American, I’ve mostly heard the phrase used to sarcastically claim not to understand, when in fact, the significance is obvious. So I guess it’s gone full circle.

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