According to the Reading Teachers Book of Lists, of the 100 most popular (used most often) spoken words in American English, the question word "what"(there are six question words that are commonly used in journalistic and other research: what, who, where, when, why and how) comes in thirty-seventh. Only one other question word, "who," makes the list, and it is eighty-seventh (so who is certainly not on first). Why is what so popular?

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    'Popular' is loaded. 'What' is obviously needed more often than say 'who'. It is used to attempt to determine what the issues / facts / details / ramifications of a matter or object are. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 9 '16 at 23:56
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    The list was compiled by The W.E.B. DuBois Learning Center in Kansas City, U.S., which among its numerous endeavors compiles lists of "popular" words. It has its list of the first 100 most popular, and a list of the second hundred most popular, and then the third, and so on. I found no information on the site about their research methods or sources. Are you implying that "what" is not 37th most popular word in American English? duboislc.org/ED-Watch/wordlist.html – Zan700 Dec 10 '16 at 0:59
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    Yes. It appears on the W.E.B. DuBois Learning Center's list, but that is not an ISO standard. And what they mean by "popular" may be "common", but who knows? – John Lawler Dec 10 '16 at 2:45
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    Just based on a 59-second Google search, it appears that "what" can be used in a few contexts that aren't questions (or related to implies questions), e.g., "what a shame" and "what will be, will be". "What if" is implicitly short for "What would happen if ..." (or similar), but it may have transcended that mold, and become a phrase unto itself — "What If?" is the 12th result in my search for "what". (OK, that's cheating — it's what-if.xkcd.com.) Maybe the other wh– words aren't as flexible. – Scott Dec 10 '16 at 4:07
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    Well, my point is that “I know ______ you did it” means “I know the answer to the question «______ did you do it?»” (implied question). But I agree that I haven’t done nearly enough research or investigation to post my thought as an answer. – Scott Dec 11 '16 at 20:17

Where, when, why and how deal with the places, times, reasons and methods "whos" do things and "whats" happen. This means that generally there will be a "what" or a "who" associated with each, but likely not the inverse. Of course that only explains why "who" and "what" get on the list in the first place. The reason "what" is ahead would seem to me to be directly related to the disproportionatly smaller number of "whos" (people) there are to "whats" (basically everything else under the sun).

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