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Whys and wherefores

Q From Joseph Flanigan: I was wondering about the origin of whys and wherefores and the correct spelling.

A You have the spelling right, though I can see why you might feel it looks odd, not least because it’s one of those fixed expressions that one trots out without thinking much about them. And one half of it is archaic, anyway.

Few people these days, in truth, can be quite sure what wherefore means. As a result, one of Shakespeare’s most quoted lines is often misunderstood. When Juliet asked, “O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?”, she wasn’t checking to see if he was on the ground below her balcony but asking why he was the person he was, a member of the hated rival Montague family. It means “why”, not “where”.

The phrase is an interesting instance of the way English speakers can turn one part of speech into another without breaking stride. Conventional grammar would say that why is an adverb, but here it lurks in the guise of a noun, meaning “reason or explanation”. Likewise wherefore.

The complete expression is at least as old as Shakespeare, who used it in the Comedy of Errors in 1590: “Was there ever any man thus beaten out of season, When in the why and the wherefore is neither rhyme nor reason?” Note the singular, once a common form: though it’s often misquoted, that’s the way the gallant Captain Corcoran and others sang it in HMS Pinafore: “Never mind the why and wherefore”.

The usual meaning is a bit more than just that of the individual words, which is why the apparent redundancy has survived — as a way to emphasise that what’s needed is not just a reason, but the whole reason, or all the reasons. It’s sometimes expanded even further, as here from the Sunday Mirror in 2000: “The fact that she’s alive at all is a miracle. The hows, whys and wherefores are irrelevant.”

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 3 Sep. 2005

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 3 September 2005.