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I searched for "what a mess" but I didn't find any definition for this phrase. So, what does it mean, and where is it used? For example if you've heard horrible news about an earthquake, is it common to say "what a mess!"?

  • It might seem a little callous to describe the earthquake and its aftermath as a "mess". It would be appropriate to use the term to describe an uncoordinated and ineffective relief effort afterwards by saying, "What a mess!" with eyerolling for emphasis. – GeoffAtkins Oct 26 '15 at 12:48
  • Let me give you an evocative example of when one might use that expression. The International Space Station, peak achievement of human science and engineering, an undertaking that took cooperation of many nations and many billions of dollars in funding... Well, just see yourself. – SF. Oct 26 '15 at 12:58
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"What a mess!" intensifies that this is a mess. It's not a fixed saying, it's just one of what's many meanings - an intensifier.

From Collins dictionary's 3rd definition of "what":

(intensifier; used in exclamations) ⇒ "what a good book!"

"What a [something]!" is like saying "This is very much a [something]!". "What a..." can be used with almost anything:

  • (you walk into the kitchen and see a child has dropped a bowl of cake mix all over the floor)
    • What a mess!
  • (you walk into the kitchen and see a child has made a perfect cake, then cleaned and tidied everything up perfectly)
    • What a nice surprise!
  • (you walk into the kitchen and see that the whole of this side of the house has been destroyed in an earthquake)
    • What a disaster!
  • (you walk into the kitchen and hear on the radio that 200 people died in an earthquake)
    • What a tragedy!

The only times you'd expect something as serious as an earthquake to be described as a mess would be:

  • Dramatic understatement
  • If you were focussing on some detail that could be described as a mess - for example, maybe if a government responded to an earthquake in a disorganised way.
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If you heard horrible news about an earthquake, you'd be more likely to say "What a tragedy!" or "How terrible."

There are a couple of uses for "What a mess!"

One is literal. If a child decides to take everything out of a cabinet and play with all of it, their parent might say "What a mess!" when they see everything spread around in a mess, rather than in the cabinet where it belongs.

The other way is describing a situation as a mess. If there has been an earthquake, and no one can get into the area to help because of the damage, a commentator might say "What a mess!" The mess isn't the disaster itself, it's the insufficient or badly managed response to the disaster.

If after the earthquake, the disaster response was well managed and quick, the only mess would be the physical objects the earthquake knocked down.

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What a mess!

This is an exclamative phrase. You use this phrase to express your surprise or shock when you see something very dirty, untidy, or full of difficulties or problems. For example, when you find a house very dirty or untidy, you can use the phrase: What a mess!

  • …although walking into someone's house and pointing out what a mess it is would very probably come off as…well…_rude._ – Blacklight Shining Oct 26 '15 at 20:40
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It would be rather after "looking at the mess from the horrible news" that you might want to say "What a mess!"

It's an expression of exclamation that something is really in a mess!

Example:

A: (Entering a room) What a mess!

B: You sound like my mother.

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