Alrighty, this explains more or less where this weird phrase comes from. But still, on the face of it, it seems an awkward way to say “why?”
How come we say this? Or do you?
And while I’m at it, where oh where in the hell do I have this flashbacky recollection (probably from a comedy show) of a woman screaming “why for you ate all my Count Chocula?” And Chocula was pronounced “cokeula” with a hard ‘ch’ sound.
The original construction was “How comes it that…” “Why” is instrumental, and its synonymy with “How come” is a late addition - originally they had more distinct purposes.
I might ask “How come you have that outlandish hat?” “The hatter had reduced its price to a pittance, and I could not resist.” This question is distinct from “Why are you wearing that outlandish hat?” “Because I observed a drop in the barometer and am anticipating rain this evening.”
Gradually, the distinction between these two has become blurry.
I’ve thought on this, in general, before and the way I figure is that just asking ‘why?’ is too brusque and can be taken the wrong way. ‘Why, huh, why you wanna piece o’ me?’* How come* gives you space to make clear you’re just asking a question.
The Count Chocula lament-- band name!-- is just easier or is more flowing in sound (my French prof said Americans were thought to have lazy mouths), but also gives plenty of clues as to who the speaker is, how they feel, and what is expected.
Yeah, probably incorrect and awkwardly expressed at that, but there ya go.
This supports the theory that it evolved originally out of “how comes it that”, although I was surprised that the “come” part doesn’t appear to have been a past participle. Interestingly, in the 1973 citation it no longer means why in the sense of For what reason?; it now takes the place of What do you mean?.
A young man is boating in the country when suddenly he hears a large splash and a desperate cry for help. Looking back toward shore he sees an older man thrashing about in the water near the dock. Being a quick-thinking lad, he immediately rows to the drowning man’s aid, and pulls him to safety.
“You’re lucky I was here,” the young man says. “But tell me … how did you come to fall into the lake?”
“Blast it all, I didn’t come to fall into the lake!” the older man gasps. “I came to fish!”
“Why” actually has several related meanings, including “how come” (i.e., what caused X) and “what for” (i.e., what is the purpose of X). See Aristotle’s Four Causes. Using the phrase “How come” specifies that you are inquiring about the efficient cause rather than the final cause. (Or at least it should… in reality, people are probably just as likely to ask “How come you’re doing that?” as “What are you doing that for?”.)
I’m reminded of the Amy Winehouse death inquest, where one of the questions put to it was “how did she come by her death?”, with the meaning that the inquest should look for a proximate cause (i.e. alcohol poisoning, as opposed to murder or suicide), as opposed to asking “why did she die?” which probably would required more detailed discussion of deeper causes.
No doubt the “how did she come by” usage is related to the “how come” phrasing.
Those are two very different questions though, regardless of whether you use “why” or “how come”. The first asks about having the hat, and the second asks about wearing it. I don’t pick on this to be a pest, I’m just not able to get my head around the distinction between the two. Can you give another example that asks the exact same question but changes only “why” and “how come”, producing two different answers?
Sure. “Why do you have that hat?” vs. “How come you have that hat?” The latter asks how you came to have the hat, while the latter is ambiguous and could mean “Why are you wearing that hat?” or asking the same question as the previous.
It’s possible that “how come” is now exactly synonymous with “why,” but the origin indicates this was not always the case.