Why (interjection)
Posted: 19 November 2012 09:41 PM   [ Ignore ]
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It’s an odd sort of interjection. I wonder how it started.

I recently came a cropper when I used it in an email conversation with a junior member of staff whose first language is not English.

He passed a nice comment on a report I’ve sent him and I said:

“Why, thank you.”

He replied, not unreasonably, as though I’d politely asked “Why?”

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Posted: 20 November 2012 03:26 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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The practice dates to the early sixteenth century. I’m not sure why it arose, but my guess is that its a conflation of the earlier what and ay. Interjections like this don’t arise deliberately, so there probably isn’t a logical reason behind it.

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Posted: 20 November 2012 08:43 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Dave Wilton - 20 November 2012 03:26 AM

my guess is that its a conflation of the earlier what and ay.

Except that English has long had the expression “Why ay”, meaning “most certainly”, now regarded as typically Geordie/Newcastle upon Tyne but found in Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott and, if Fanny Burney is believed, on the lips of Dr Johnson. Where that stands in relation to this discussion, however, I know not ...

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Posted: 20 November 2012 06:43 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Except that English has long had the expression “Why ay”, meaning “most certainly”

sounds like “Why, I oughta...”

A friend of mine in his late 80’s uses this regularly.

[ Edited: 20 November 2012 06:46 PM by Oecolampadius ]
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Posted: 20 November 2012 11:45 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Thanks, people. I’ll file it under JOOTT.

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Posted: 21 November 2012 02:06 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Geordies and north easterners (you can cause major offence hereabouts by labelling everyone from the north east Geordies) in general pronounce it “whey” or “wee” +ay.

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Posted: 21 November 2012 04:29 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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We also start sentences with ‘Well…’ and ‘What…’ and although there are nuances in meaning they’re often more or less interchangeable. (E.g. ‘Why, you don’t like it?’ and ‘What, you don’t like it?’ convey the identical meaning, IMO)

‘What’, of course, goes back at least as far as Beowulf, in the form Hwæt. Maybe English-speakers have always just felt a need to preface their remarks with something beginning with the hw/wh aspirate.

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Posted: 21 November 2012 10:01 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Just a footnote or side issue: of those US types who do not have the which/witch merger, i.e., who distinguish /w/ from /hw/, many or most pronounce the interjection “why” as /wai/ but pronounce “why” in other applications (adverb, noun) as /hwai/.

(Do I know why /hwai/ that is? Why /wai/, I surely don’t!)

[ Edited: 21 November 2012 10:04 PM by D Wilson ]
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