My knuckles lay against the child’s blue jeans. She was barefooted; her toenails showed remnants of cherry-red polish and there was a bit of adhesive tape across her big toe; and, God, what would I not have given to kiss then and there those delicate-boned, long-toed, monkeyish feet!
(Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov)

It’s hard to find out the proper account for above ‘what’ in dictionaries. What does ‘what’ mean: does it mean ‘on what reason’?

1 Answer 1


Both “what would I not have given” and “what would I have given” have appeared often in fiction, the former more frequently. For example, from Victor Hugo, “Oh, what would I not have given to have lived on! What a happy life we led in our poor caravan! ...”; from Charles Dickens, “What would I not have given to be one of them! Though I never could have been so rude, no, no!”; from Sir Walter Scott, “— we had been hard put to it for victuals— what would I have given for a luncheon of Eurgh-Westra beef —”; from Laurence Sterne, “What would I have given for my uncle Toby to have whistled, Lillobullero!”.

Both phrases are rhetorical expressions by which the speaker claims that if they could have, they would have given much to accomplish an end. But lack of means; lack of time; social conventions; or other reasons prevent the speaker from doing so.

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    If you turn it around, you can imagine him thinking 'I would have given all my money ... the whole earth (if I owned it) ... the sun and the moon and the stars (if I owned them) ... to kiss her feet - indeed, what would I not have given (if I owned it)?' (It's in the form of a question, but it is actually an exclamation.)
    – Sydney
    Commented Dec 22, 2014 at 4:04

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