Later the car encountered a similar obstacle at another railroad crossing, this time in Matfield, where a more determined guard planted himself by the tracks and held up a stop sign to block the car from the path of another oncoming train. “[T]hey did not seem to want to stop . . .,” the guard said. “[O]ne of them in the automobile asked me, ‘What to hell I was holding him up for?’”

Can you please tell me what the passage in bold in the excerpt could excatly mean. The phrasal verb "hold sb up" has a few different meaning but none of them makes the sense in the context to me.

  • I've never come across the phrase "what to hell". It's most likely a typo for "what the hell".
    – rjpond
    Sep 12, 2017 at 18:13

1 Answer 1


To hold someone|something up is to delay them|it.

We didn't get to the wedding on time. We were held up by an accident that closed the bridge for two hours.

You will spoil the surprise party if you don't get here soon. What's holding you up?

The unavailability of a critical component held up production of the new phone.

So the person is the automobile is asking impatiently, "Why are you making us wait here?"

  • Thank you. But the sentence is the reported speech within the reported speech. It would make sense ‘What to hell you were holding me up for – in the meaning how dare you delay me.
    – bart-leby
    Sep 12, 2017 at 8:50
  • What to hell was I holding him up for? But that wasn't the question you asked.
    – TimR
    Sep 12, 2017 at 8:51
  • Have you presented the text "as is" or is this your punctuation?
    – TimR
    Sep 12, 2017 at 8:52
  • Yes, I have the original. So I cited accurately.
    – bart-leby
    Sep 12, 2017 at 8:54
  • There shouldn't be quotation marks around What to hell....for
    – TimR
    Sep 12, 2017 at 8:56

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