Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Examples:

  • Why, I'd love to.
  • Why, of course!

I get the concept of starting a sentence with a word not completely related to the overall response, but this one seems to be a particularly odd choice — is there any semantic meaning I'm missing?

share|improve this question

2 Answers 2

up vote 17 down vote accepted

According to the OED, the use of why as an interjection dates back to the 16th century:

1519 Interl. Four Elem. Bvij, Than I perceyue ye wyll make gode chere. Hu. Why, what shulde I els do?
1581 Confer. with Campion (1583) Ciij, Why, is not Saint Iames Epistle called the Catholike Epistle of Saint Iames. How do you then denie it to be Canonicall?
1599 Shakes. Much Ado iv. ii. 44 Why this is flat periurie, to call a Princes brother villaine. Ibid. v. iv. 73 Bene. Doo not you loue me? Beat. Why no, no more then reason.

The OED doesn't explain why it is used in that manner. I can only speculate. First it was just a question expressing doubt reduced to its essence:

It is best that we negotiate a truce with Spain. — Why is that so? I believe the Spanish armies cannot threaten us.

They will fail in their attempt to conquer England. — Why? Their fleet is far superior in strength and number.

This developed through rhetorical question into a mere interjection of surprise:

We should offer the English crown to the Dutch Stadtholder. — Why, William of Orange, you say? That would be a terrible idea.

From there its function of calling attention (if that's what it is) to a following statement developed:

This Corsican might be trouble; why, I think he will conquer all of Europe in a decade.

The OED notes that it is often used this way in opposition to a vague doubt or apprehension.

share|improve this answer
    
Well done. I can't help but agree. –  HaL Mar 18 '11 at 2:24
2  
+1 for some excellent history in your example sentences! –  Uticensis Mar 18 '11 at 4:05

Why, that's what it means!

It doesn't actually transform the sentence into a question; the question mark does that (see also: French).

We've just gotten used to always seeing it at the start of a question, but it's really there to draw attention.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.