What in Tarnation – Meaning, Origin and Usage

Have you ever encountered something so strange that you just don’t know how to react? Perhaps you have experienced a jarring event that has left you dazed and confused. If so, then an apt phrase to utter would be what in tarnation? This post unpacks the meaning and origin of this expression.


Tarnation is a phrase that most remember being spoken by Yosemite Sam during his weekly cartoon run. The phrase is an explication used to express anger, surprise, or utter confusion. Though modern times consider the word pretty tame, it was considered a mild form of swearing during its heyday.

A more in-depth meaning of tarnation or tarnation is that means something is being damned or reprobated. It can also stand for someone who is a troublemaker or a bad seed. It is an old-fashioned mild curse word akin to saying “what the hell”, or “what the heck” in modern language.

Example Usage

“What in the tarnation do you think you are doing with my pot of chili?”

“What in the tarnation are you talking about Sally?”

“What in the tarnation is going on over that hill there, that’s a bonafide fire!”

“What’s all that noise? What in the tarnation is going on over there in the saloon?”


Tarnation originated way back in the 18th century. The word is derived from “darnation”. This word itself is an offshoot of the word damnation. Tarnation is also connected with the curse word “tarnal”, which further comes from the word eternal. In early times, the word had a religious context with negative connotations. Though the 1784 derivative of damnation was used for a while, it is the more recent usage that most people remember.

Yosemite Sam was first displayed on the screen in 1945. This cartoon character was produced by Warner Bros in the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoon series. The character is the epitome of Yosemite National Park and was set to be the natural nemesis of Bugs Bunny. He is considered to be an outlaw who is very aggressive, or in some circles, a temper tantrum-throwing cowboy. He carried two big guns on his hips and was always looking for ways to capture Bugs Bunny. The reason that Yosemite Sam is so memorable is due to some of his catchphrases. One of the most memorable is “what in the tarnation” This is where most people attribute the phrase in modern times. He is also known for saying “I ain’t o namby-bamby!” and “I’m the meanest, roughest, toughest hombre that’s ever crossed the Rio Grande!”

Phrases Similar to What in Tarnation

  • What in the blazes
  • Sam hill
  • What the hell
  • What the F*uck
  • You have got to be kidding
  • What the heck

Phrases Opposite to What in Tarnation

  • I know what’s up
  • Are you for real
  • Let’s get into it
  • On the money
  • Clear as day

What is the Correct Saying?

  • The proper saying is – what in the tarnation?

Ways People May Incorrectly Say What in Tarnation


Tarnation can be used in a variety of ways, however, there are times when it can be misused. Some ways that what in tarnation is used incorrectly are:

  • Hey, what in the tarnation is the plan here, let’s get things going!
  • I don’t know what in the tarnation you plan to use to get things done.

Acceptable Ways to Phrase What in Tarnation

Some ways that what in tarnation is used correctly are:

  • Are you out of your mind?! What in the tarnation is really going on here between you two?
  • I just don’t know what in the tarnation you think you are doing trying to sneak off with my car.
  • What in the tarnation is that giant ship floating down over the horizon?
  • Hey! Just what in the tarnation is that gadget in your hand there?

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