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!"?
"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.
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.