Is asking someone “What do you mean by ___?" a rude way to ask the meaning of something you don't understand?

For example, when I chat with my American friends, and there is a word I don't know the meaning. What should I say?

How could I ask the meaning of the word?

  • 1
    It's entirely in the context and tone of voice. And in the words _____. Nothing at all wrong with asking "What do you mean by 'turnip'?" But when it progresses to "What do you mean by saying I'm an idiot?" then likely the conversation has disintegrated.
    – Hot Licks
    Jul 5, 2016 at 11:46

3 Answers 3


I disagree with @maggiehm's answer: I don't see anything wrong with this phrasing.

However, the intonation does matter.

What do you mean by "X"?

This sounds totally innocuous and genuine to me.

What do you mean by X?

(So there's some emphasis on the italicized phrase, with intonation similar to sarcasm.) This would sound accusatory, and if you were writing a novel you might write it as:

"What do you mean by X?" she said as she narrowed her eyes.

However, if I know you're not from my area (e.g. you're not a native English speaker, or even if you're from somewhere that isn't my own country), I'm going to assume the former intent much more often than the latter, unless you make it really obvious that you're going for the accusatory type of sentence.

  • Could you please make it clear which answer you're in disagreement with, please? P.S I believe you're referring to maggiehm's post.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jul 10, 2016 at 4:54
  • @Mari-LouA right you are; the other answer had not been submitted when I wrote mine. I'll update to obviate the reference. Thanks! :) Jul 10, 2016 at 4:56

"What do you mean by 'XX'?" could sound slightly rude because native English speakers might perceive it as accusatory or argumentative.

Instead, I would say something like, "'XX?' I'm not familiar with that word/term. Could you explain what that means in this context for me?"

  • 1
    I agree that this phrase can sound rude. However, in the context provided by the O.P. ("when I chat with my friends, and there is a word I don't know the meaning?"), it's perhaps unlikely to be perceived as rude. This is also a case where such questions might seem more rude in an online environment, where communication is in print form, and it's harder to distinguish between genuine curiosity and challenging sarcasm.
    – J.R.
    Jul 5, 2016 at 8:00
  • If it comes down to tone of voice, then I think anything could sound rude if said with a particular tone of voice, eg hostile, mocking, etc. Just taking the words on face value, it's not an intrinsically rude question. Jul 5, 2016 at 10:23
  • I think you're providing good advice here. In a web column entitled 5 Tips for Polite and Diplomatic Language, the author mentions: Avoid 'finger pointing' statements with the word 'you'.
    – J.R.
    Jul 28, 2016 at 15:02

"What do mean by XYZ" implies you understand the word or phrase being expressed but you're not sure if there is a hidden or double meaning.

A: I won't be here for long.
B: What do you mean by that? Are you dying!?"
A. Noooo. I'll be leaving for greener pastures
B: What does that mean? You're going to the countryside?
A: No, it means I've received a job promotion. I won't be "here" for long because I'm moving to a different department. (OR)
No, it means I leaving this company for a better job.

To clarify, the most common way of asking the meaning of a word or expression is the second question in bold. E.g.; *What does ____ mean?

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