Why, That’s an Interesting Use of “Why”!

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A word-curious reader posted a great question recently on an old post. I found the question interesting, and the researching even more so.

Here’s the question:

Dear Brian,

Speaking of idiomatic language, I have a question about a word my grandfather and his generation used quite often. I noticed not only Grandpa, but also movie actors of the first half of the 20th century began sentences with the word “Why,” although no question was being asked. For example, “Papa Larkins, did you ride to school in a school bus?” He would have answered, “Why no, we walked to school.” Other ways of using this word peppered his speech. Such as, “Why, I believe I’d add a bit of sugar to the tea.” Or, “Why, your Grandmother was the prettiest girl I’d ever seen.” Or, “Why, she may have even outshone the moon with her smile.” Do you recall this seemingly archaic usage of this word? Can you think of what words have replaced it, if any?

Sincerely, Just Curious in NC.

*****

Here’s my reply:

*****

Great question! I’d never thought of it, though I watch enough old movies to have noticed this usage.

It’s using “why” as an interjection that seems to indicate some slight surprise or perhaps protest.

According to the OED (I love the OED!), this usage dates back at least to 1520. It appears in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing at least twice:

  • 1600   Shakespeare Much Ado about Nothing iv. ii. 39   “Why this is flat periurie, to call a Princes brother villaine.”
  • 1600   Shakespeare Much Ado about Nothing v. iv. 74   “Bene: Do not you loue me? Beat. Why no, no more then reason.”

One linguist on a discussion board hypothesizes that it derived from the interrogative use of <em>why</em> to indicate puzzlement or wonder, but he was admittedly guessing.

*****

Do you have a question or comment? I’d love to hear it and respond. Leave it in the Reply section below.

About the Author

Brian Wasko

Brian WaskoBrian is the founder and president of WriteAtHome.com. One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.View all posts by Brian Wasko

  1. R G
    R G07-09-2014

    I think this usage is endearing, and I especially appreciate the diction most use when saying it — fully using the ‘H’ sound that is often dropped in lazy speech of today.

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