I am curious to know when whatever, whenever, wherever and whoever first started being used as interrogative words. Merriam-Webster, etymonline and dictionary.com offer no hints. Wikipedia doesn't even mention them as interrogatives, completely ignoring the fact that there are countless books titled Whatever happened to X?. TheFreeDictionary.com points out that

[c]ritics have occasionally objected to the one-word form, but many respected writers have used it

and leaves it at that (well, thanks for nothing).

  • 2
    "Whatever happened to “what ever” and whenever did it happen?" doesn't make sense to me. "Whatever happened to RegDwight?" = "Where is RegDwight nowadays?" "Whenever" usually isn't used as a question word, it's used in positive sentences: "Come whenever you like".
    – delete
    Aug 28, 2010 at 9:09
  • 1
    The NOAD reports that in the interrogative sense (What ever was Mary thinking?) the emphasis is on ever, and it should be spelled as the two words (what ever) because ever is serving as an intensifier to the pronoun what.
    – apaderno
    Aug 28, 2010 at 13:03
  • @Shinto: I don't normally use any of the one-word forms myself, either, but that doesn't mean that others don't. Random House Dictionary: "whenever [...] 2. when? (used emphatically): Whenever did he say that?" Collins English Dictionary: "whenever [...] 4. an intensive form of when, used in questions: whenever did he escape?" My question is, how far this usage can be traced back, not whether it makes sense to you, myself, or anyone else.
    – RegDwigнt
    Aug 28, 2010 at 15:48
  • you are right, my mistake.
    – delete
    Aug 28, 2010 at 15:52

2 Answers 2


From the OED's online entry on the interrogative form of whatever, the earliest entry for the pronoun usage as a single word is from 13—:

13.. Seuyn Sag. (W.) 3514 Son, what may al this noys be,..Whateuer sal it sygnyfy?

Interestingly, their first listed example of the two-word version is from 14—.

The first pronoun usage they have in the modern spelling:

1823 Spirit Publ. Jrnls. 409 Whatever possessed her, I know no more than the child unborn.

For the adjectival usage, the first example is in the two-word form.

c1375 Cursor M. 321 (Fairf.) Quat euer e haly gaste wille, e fader and sone wil tyte fulfil.

The first instance of the single-word form appears in 1456,

1456 SIR G. HAYE Law Arms (S.T.S.) 228 Quhatever sik men dois, it is comperit to the dede of a beste.

and, with the spelling moving through Shakespeare's contraction whatere and Milton's more descriptive Whate're (notice the apostrophe), we see the first modern-spelling usage in Swift's Gulliver's Travels.

1726 SWIFT Gulliver IV. v, It is a Maxim among these Men, That whatever has been done before may legally be done again.

Whatever happened to "what ever" appears to have started happening a long while ago.


http://www.etymonline.com also doesn't give much explanation besides giving a general century of the first use. However, it does mention that whatever is a variant of whatsoever as well as a construction of what and ever.

  • 1
    It's possible that "whatsoever" was related to "whatever" at some time in the past, but "Whatsoever" in modern usage has a very different meaning from "whatever".
    – delete
    Aug 28, 2010 at 9:05
  • The NOAD reports as archaic the use of whatsoever as adjective and pronoun; in that case, it reports whatsoever means whatever.
    – apaderno
    Aug 29, 2010 at 23:59

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