The Grammarphobia Blog

How do you do?

Q: While enjoying old movies, I’ve noticed that one of the most common expressions is “How do you do?” Presumably, this was common in everyday speech as well. But no one, it seems, says that anymore—in film or out. Why the change?

A: It’s true that “How do you do?” has largely been replaced by newer “How” greetings: “How are you doing?” … “How are you?” … “How’s it going?” and so on.

These days, most of us don’t use “How do you do?” as the offhand, casual greeting it once was. We reserve it for formal introductions.

But all of these expressions are part of a long history of English pleasantries beginning with “how,” a tradition that got its start with “How do you?” in the Middle Ages.

Here the adverb “how” means “in what condition or state,” the Oxford English Dictionary says. And in this sense, “how” appears in “common phrases used in inquiring as to a person’s health.”

The original formula, dating at least as far back as the 1300s, was “how do” + pronoun (or name).

The OED‘s earliest example is from the Towneley Mystery Plays, dramatic depictions of biblical scenes that were probably first performed in the 1370s. (The only surviving manuscript is later, dating from sometime before 1460.)

This is the relevant line: “How do thay in Gessen, The Iues, can ye me say?” (“How do they in Goshen, the Jews, can you tell me?”)

In searches of early English databases, we’ve found many 15th, 16th, and 17th-century examples of this “how do” formula. Here’s a sampling (we’ll dispense with the question marks, since most aren’t complete sentences):

“how doth sir tristram” (1485); “how do ye mayster” (1499); “how doth my lady” (1560); “how doth my sonne” (1565); “how doest thou” (1548); “sir how do you” (1561); “how do ye to day” (1565);  “how dost thou” (1577); “How does all our friends in Lancashire” (1600); “how doeth my cousin” (1601); “how does thy mistrisse” (1608); “how do all our friends in Hampshire” (1693); “how does my lady” (1696).

In usages like that, “do” is the principal verb and its meaning is similar to “fare,” as in “How fare you?” But in the early 1600s another “do” crept into the formula, and “how do you” eventually became “how do you do,” with the first verb a mere auxiliary—as it would be in “How do you fare?”

The earliest example of “how do you do” that we’ve been able to find is from Thomas Middleton’s comic play No Wit/Help Like a Womans, which Middleton scholars say was written and first staged in 1611: “Gentlemen, Out-laws all, how do you do?” (OED examples are not as old, since the dictionary’s “how” entries are not yet fully updated.)

The next example we found appeared after a gap of 45 years. It’s from Richard Flecknoe’s The Diarium (1656), a diary in comic verse: “Visits I made me two or three, / With reverence not very comely, / And complements indeed as homely; / As for example; ‘How do you do?’ /’Well I thank ye, How do you?’ ”

(Note that the author regarded “how do you do” as a “homely” compliment, suggesting that it was already a familiar greeting even then.)

We’ve also found several examples from the 1690s of “how dost thou do,” a more formal version of “how do you do.” And by 1700, according to our searches, the “how do you do” form had begun to replace the older “how do you.”

As is often the case with well-entrenched salutations, both versions spawned many abbreviated forms.

The OED mentions “how-do-ye,” “how-d’ye,” and “how dee,” which eventually became—you guessed it—”howdy”! The spelling “how dee” (as in “How dee neighbour”) appeared around 1600, the OED says. The earliest “howdy” spelling we’ve found is from 1694.

(All this, by the way, sheds new light on Howdy Doody, the famous puppet whose name is a mashup of these greetings. In Elizabethan times, he might have been known as “How-d’ye Do-d’ye.”)

Besides “do,” the common “how” greetings” include forms of the verbs “be” and “go.”

The OED has these as its earliest examples: “how is it with you” (1480) and “how goes it” (1598). However, we found uses of “go” that are slightly earlier: “How goes it, Sirs?” (c. 1589) and “How goes the world with thee?” (1593).

But the specific expression “how are you” apparently didn’t become common, at least in writing, until the 1600s. The earliest definite use we’ve found is from an exchange in another Thomas Middleton play, Women, Beware Women (c. 1621): “How are you now, sir?” … “I feel a better ease, madam.”

We also found examples in a play called Matrimonial Trouble (1662), by Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle. For instance, Sir William Lovewell says to Lady Hypocondria: “How are you, dear Wife? How do you feel your self now? How are you?”

Finally, as you might suspect, the more casual “how’s things” and “how’s tricks” came along in the first half of the 20th century. And while they may sound like American slang, they were first recorded in books by authors from Australia and New Zealand.

These are the earliest findings reported in the OED: “How’s things?” (Australia, 1926); “How are things?” (New Zealand, 1930); “How’s tricks?” (Australia, 1941); and a sighting of both, “How’s things? … How’s tricks with you?” (New Zealand, 1949).

By this time, of course, “How do you do” was no longer a casual “hello” but had developed into something more formal. We’ll conclude with a passage, headed “What to Say When Introduced,” from Emily Post’s Etiquette (1922):

“Best Society has only one phrase in acknowledgment of an introduction: ‘How do you do?’ It literally accepts no other. When Mr. Bachelor says, ‘Mrs. Worldly, may I present Mr. Struthers?’ Mrs. Worldly says, ‘How do you do?’ Struthers bows, and says nothing.”

When a reply is in order, however, it should NOT be “Charmed,” “Pleased to meet you,” or the like, she says. It should be a remark that can lead to conversation.

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