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"Did you ever" what? "Did you ever fancy"?

Richard Dawkins tweeted just now:

So-called idiots savants, calculating prodigies etc elicit a “just fancy that”, “well, did you ever?” amazement. But isn’t their existence telling us something important? When we compare brains with computers, we forget that some brains can near-instantly deliver cube roots.

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    What is your question?
    – fev
    Jan 13 at 14:36
  • "Did you ever see such a thing?" Jan 13 at 15:33
  • There's a whole song from the movie High Society named "Well Did You Ever", sung by Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby: youtube.com/watch?v=7kq1JQUhwVQ Jan 13 at 22:04
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Exclamatory Did you ever? is just a slightly more "non-intuitive" idiomatic construction than Well I never!. The choice of first, second, or third person singular as the subject makes no real difference to the meaning in...

1: Well I never!
2: Did you ever?
3: One would hardly think so!

...where the only real difference is that although it's perfectly natural to use I or You in #3 above, it's not idiomatic to change the subject like that with the first two. But other than that, they all mean pretty much the same thing (speaker is expressing HIS OWN surprise and/or rejection of something contextually relevant).


It's not really worth trying to deconstruct the grammar or "origin" of expressions like this. Most native speakers are perfectly familiar with the expressions themselves, but wouldn't have a clue how they came to become part of natural spoken language. This doesn't stop us using them, but note that #1 and #2 in particular are starting to become rather "dated, stylised" today.

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The phrase is meant to express astonishment at some occurrence - whatever occurrence is under discussion. In this case it seems to be astonishment at some human thinking feats. Dawkins is suggesting that you should not be amazed.

(I tried a google search for documentation, but found only links to the Cole Porter song.)

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  • He isn't saying we shouldn't be amazed. The human mind is amazing, especially as he points out, some savants can instantly compute a cube root. He is saying that is it more than a "fancy that" type of amazement, and that it is also very important to perform proper comparisons with machines, not superficial ones. Jan 13 at 16:04
  • @chasly-supportsMonica I agree that Dawkins thinks the human brain is amazing (and that idiots savants can help us realize that) so you should not find it amazing when you see evidence of our amazing brain. In short, he's saying we should be amazed at the brain, not amazed to see that the brain is amazing. Jan 13 at 16:54
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"Did you ever?" is idiomatic for "That is surprising!"

It is short for "Did you ever see anything like it?"

In other words, it is elicited when the thing you are remarking on is so rare that it is unlikely that anyone has encountered it before. Hence the answer to "Did you ever see such a thing?" is expected to return the answer "No."

It has the same sort of force as "Well I never!" which of course is "Well, I have never seen anything like it before!" Or the older "Well, I never did!" which means the same.

All such phrases: "Did you ever?", "Well I never!" and "Well I never did!" are idioms and overwhelmingly commonly appear as they are presented.

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  • It could just as easily be "short for" Did you ever hear of such a thing? Or Did you ever imagine that such a thing could be possible? Or any number of alternatives. Jan 13 at 18:12
  • @FumbleFingersReinstateMonica Yes of course it can, Captain Obvious, I was keeping it simple for the hard-of-thinking among us. Jan 13 at 21:38

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