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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"?

marked as duplicate by Edwin Ashworth, Mari-Lou A, Chenmunka, FumbleFingers, tchrist Aug 12 '15 at 23:11

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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 '14 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 '14 at 11:38
  • @Jus12 seriously? Is that specific for tattoos, or some ethnic group? I've never encountered it. – JDługosz Sep 16 '15 at 17:47
  • @JDługosz I was being cheeky. This is a quote from a movie. Hint: Google "why come no tattoo" – Jus12 Sep 16 '15 at 18:13

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.

  • 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 '14 at 10:12
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    I'm only a little sad that this answer doesn't also mention "wherefore." – wordsmythe Jul 3 '14 at 15:28
  • I remember a story about returning a dog in the American Revolution where the dog, belonging to How (or Howe?) Answered to "how come". If that was not a common phrase, did it mean something else, or why was it recorded as interesting? – JDługosz Sep 16 '15 at 17:50

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".


In Dutch you can ask: 'Hoe komt dat?', 'hoe' can mean 'why' or 'how'. If you see your friend has a broken leg, you can ask: 'Hoe komt dat?'; you want to know how it happened. If someone says they are having a bad day, you can say: 'Hoe komt dat?' or 'Waarom?' which means 'why?'

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    Hello, Yvette, and thanks. This would make a good 'comment' rather than an 'answer', but you need 50 rep points to add one of those. – Edwin Ashworth Feb 14 '15 at 1:47
  • Yes, that is true. Another comment that may help to get to an answer is about Latin roots of many words in English, Dutch and German. It is amazing how similar our languages still are, in my opinion. I wish I could quote some articles, but all were in Dutch and I did not save the links. I always look to improve my English and language skills in general. So I appreciate your patience and pointing out that this was a comment. I have no idea what rep points are, but I suppose I haven't the status to comment. I wonder why this rule exists. And I realize I just made another comment. – Yvette Feb 23 '15 at 5:50
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    Apparently, you can add 'comment's here to your own 'answer' before you can add them to other people's! I didn't know that. // simchona's 'answer' is good: it gives answers to the reason why 'how come' is used for 'why', and the etymology of the phrase, both with a decent reference. Your 'answer' perhaps shows a parallel development, which is relevant, but, as it stands, not a 'good' 'answer' to the original question/s. // The 50-point rule exists to try to prevent dire answers (yours is far from dire). Post a few answers, get 50 rep points, and you can comment freely. – Edwin Ashworth Feb 23 '15 at 10:01

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 E. Эллен Oct 5 '12 at 12:21

It's because the original expression "HOW did it COME to be like this?" was shortened to "How come" with slang. Not that hard.

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    Welcome to ELU. Please do read other answers before posting, particularly when a question already has an accepted answer. This answer actually repeats that one. – Andrew Leach Oct 11 '14 at 15:59

'How come?' is more likely to be contracted from a (now outdated but formerly common) questioning construction that puts the main verb in the second position instead of behind an auxiliary; so instead of 'How does it come to be that..' -- the question would be asked, more elegantly I believe, 'How comes it that...?' -- and this can then lead easily and directly, by dropping things off the end, not out of the middle, to the casual 'How come?' == see this stackexchange: 'How comes it' or 'How come is it'?

  • Hello charli. Have you any evidence for your assertion? – Edwin Ashworth Aug 11 '15 at 21:33

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