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When someone asks "How come?", the person answering actually answers the question "why?". "Why?" and "How?" are very different questions. I was wondering how "how come?" came to be an alternative way of asking "why?". Perhaps "how come?" is short form for something else?

I'm trying to understand the reason the word "how" came to be used in the phrase "how come". Why not use "what come", "who come", "when come" or "why come"?

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Looks like a duplicate of english.stackexchange.com/questions/5563/how-come-vs-why? –  mmyers Jul 12 '11 at 20:47
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I think the OP is trying to figure out the history of the phrase, rather than when to use each. –  simchona Jul 12 '11 at 20:50
    
"why come" is also used.. as in "why come you don't have a tattoo" –  Jus12 Mar 11 at 9:58
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The Afrikaners can also say "hoekom" for "why." I wonder if that's because of the influence of English or if perhaps there's a Dutch expression "heokom" that influenced English. –  Gary Clay Rector Jul 3 at 11:38
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3 Answers 3

up vote 8 down vote accepted

There is a solid discussion of this question (why does "how come" mean "why") on Word Detective.

First, the article says that your hunch that "how come" is short for something else is correct:

The final piece of the puzzle of “how come” is the fact that it is actually an abbreviation of a longer phrase, which, although not known with certainty, was probably “how comes it” or “how does it come,” meaning “how did this (event, condition, etc.) happen to be this way.”

Second, the brief history of the origin of "how come" is that:

It seems to have been an American invention of the 19th century, although similar forms date back several hundred years in English. The first appearance of “how come” in print dates to 1848, but since that was in Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms and the phrase was described as being common at that time, it is almost certainly older. That was, after all, an age when slang and colloquial phrases were usually avoided, not memorialized, in print.

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The link unfortunately seems to have died since this answer was written. The form how comes it that was used quite a lot earlier than the 19th c., probably at least back to the 16th (as in the folk song By Chance It Was). –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 16 at 10:12
    
I'm only a little sad that this answer doesn't also mention "wherefore." –  wordsmythe Jul 3 at 15:28
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The phrase "how come" is short for an older phrase "how come you by this notion?"; synonymous with "how do you arrive at this conclusion?". The full sentence can be structured many ways: "how comes it to be this way", more eloquently structured in the past tense as "how did it come to be this way", is very general and doesn't have to refer to a person's statement, but to the state of something in general. All of this can and has been shortened to "how come", which generally means "what is the reason", which in turn is synonymous with "why".

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I had always understood the phrase "How come" to mean "How did (does) it come to pass that...", but that's pretty much the same as what is stated above, that it comes from "how comes it" or "how does it come." I got this information from my own instructors, and I have no information on where they got it. I have simply assumed that since I had heard it more than once, it was substantiated. (I have a master's degree in English, if that helps you to be less skeptical about me.) So, with my response and the one above, it seems clear that in some way, "how come" originated from a longer phrase. We love to abbreviate.

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This doesn't really add anything to the accepted answer. –  Matt Эллен Oct 5 '12 at 12:21
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