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"Landlord," said I, going up to him as cool as Mt. Hecla in a snow-storm—"landlord, stop whittling. You and I must understand one another, and that too without delay. I come to your house and want a bed; you tell me you can only give me half a one; that the other half belongs to a certain harpooneer. And about this harpooneer, whom I have not yet seen, you persist in telling me the most mystifying and exasperating stories tending to beget in me an uncomfortable feeling towards the man whom you design for my bedfellow—a sort of connexion, landlord, which is an intimate and confidential one in the highest degree. I now demand of you to speak out and tell me who and what this harpooneer is, and whether I shall be in all respects safe to spend the night with him.”
(Moby Dick, by Herman Melville)

Tell me who seems to ask about the harpooneer’s identity. nature. But what does this demand tell me what ask about: If it was tell me what this harpooner is like, it may be, I guess, about his look, appearance?

  • "Who and what" has become a bit of a stock phrase in contemporary English, meaning "tell me all you know about this person". I don't know whether the "what" ever had a specific meaning, but I believe in this case you can take "who" to be asking about identity and background, while "what" asks about personality ("what sort of person is he?"). – Tim Pederick Jun 29 '14 at 11:24
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    'Tell me who and what this person is' might be a reasonable request when you don't know anything about the person, meaning 'Tell me who this person is' eg a name, and 'Tell me what this person is' eg a job or personal description. – Sydney Jun 29 '14 at 12:19
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Tell me who this harpooneer is may be understood as a demand for a social identity: What is his name? Where does he come from? and so forth.

And tell me what this harpooneer is may be understood as a demand to know what sort of man he is: What is his character? What sort of behavior should I expect of him?

  • Thank you for your correcting the spelling of harpooneer. There is ‘mountaineer’ in the book and I can find it in my dictionary but harpooneer isn’t. I thought this: there might be intended misspelling. Because this book gives me the sense of rhythm in the sentences. – Listenever Jun 29 '14 at 13:26
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    @Listenever Actually, it is I who must thank you: Melville employs the -eer ending, and I have corrected my answer accordingly. -eer, an adaptation of French -ier, is not a very productive suffix today, but from the 17th to the 19th century it was more common: Xeer designates not "one who Xes" but "one who is concerned with or wields X". – StoneyB Jun 29 '14 at 13:38

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