How Come People Say ‘How Come’?

Everyone has been using how? means “why?” since at least the mid-19th century. And why shouldn’t they?

In fact, we don’t think they should. It’s useful.

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There’s no reason to avoid it when you want an informal tone.

How that? is seen in the headlines, where it conveys a relaxed tone, where simply Why? can make the reader think they are about to receive a claustrophobic lecture rather than a conversational explanation:

Hey, why isn’t the USA’s massive World Cup qualifier on regular TV? — washington articlesOctober 9, 2017

You asked, we answered: Why doesn’t anyone know wood smoke is bad for you? — New Hampshire Public Radio (, October 20, 2017

And it signaled the same relaxed tone in the speech, as in this excerpt from a speech by Barack Obama, campaigning for the Democratic nominee in the race for governor of Virginia:

Midterm elections, midterms—Democrats get a little sleepy sometimes. You get a little complacent. And as a result, people wake up and they’re surprised – ‘Why can’t we pass Congress? Why can’t we get things through the state? Because you slept through the election. — quoted by CNN (, November 4, 2017

It also signals the kind of intimate tone that exists in our inner dialogue or most intimate conversations:

Comedy here is less military, not tense to menacing but arising from a more lenient feeling that most people, most of the time, mess with. Their speech betrays a fundamental embarrassment; usually, what they provide is not lines of dialogue but indistinct stammers— “What’s wrong? What? What?” – Anthony Lane, New YorkersNovember 13, 2017

There have been speculations for years about where how from. It is widely claimed to be its American origin, of which we are not entirely certain. A slightly different version of the phrase was used by Bard himself:

ROSALINE. Play, music, then. No, you have to do it soon. / Not yet? No dancing! So change I like the moon. KING. Won’t you dance? How come you are so estranged? ROSALINE. You took the full moon; But now she has changed. — Shakespeare, Labor of lost love1597

About two hundred years later, it is still used as such on the English side of the pond, as in this example from Dickens:

‘Then what, and how did you get here?’ exclaimed Gride, somewhat reassured, but still withdrawing from his guest: ‘what’s your name and what do you want?’ – Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby1839

In both cases, of course how does not mean “why”, as it is currently used; instead, it means “how did you become?” or “how did you become?” (American writer Herman Melville also used the phrase in the 1850s.) But in his 1859 novel Adam Bedeby George Eliot who is also British, we see an example that perhaps bridges the gap between the two meanings:

“Why, Hetty, girl, did you become a Methodist?” said Mr. Poyser, with the slow, relaxed smile one sees only in stout people. “You have to grimace longer before you make one; don’t you, Adam? Why are you putting them on, huh?” “Adam said he liked Dinah’s hat and cape more than my clothes,” said Hetty, sitting down solemnly. “He said people look better in ugly clothes.”

Here, the meaning is quite close to “why?” a: “how did you come to wear those things?” very close to something like “why are you wearing that?”

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And that’s as far as we’ve gotten to the origin of how? question. But provenance aside, what use itself? Here’s what we know: writers and speakers find it helpful in conveying a formal tone, and they’ve been doing so for a very long time. There is no reason to avoid it.

And we will leave you with this interesting fact: American regional English dictionary report an adjective how-to-you-so (But also how-to-you-so) means “intoxicated” (as in “your husband was… a bit like what I call star-to-ye-so”), or “pregnant” (“She came-to-you–” so”), the earliest example is cited from 1827. You can also use it, but chances are no one will know what you’re talking about.

Categories: Usage Notes

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