“How do I do what?”
15th June 2021
Person A: “My name’s David Smith. How do you do?”
Person B: “I’m Jan Kowalski. Nice to meet you. How do I do what?”
Jan’s response in the above exchange is fair enough if he’s never come across the formal greeting “How do you do?” before. If you think about it, it is a rather odd question; we almost exclusively use “do” as a transitive verb, similar to “make”, and so we expect it to be followed by an object (e.g. ”do the washing”, “do homework”).
The explanation is that, hundreds of years back, the verb “do” was used with a similar meaning to “fare”, which, in turn, means “manage”, “get on” etc. So, a question such as “How do you?” (or “How doest thou?”) meant “How fare you?”.
Later, in the 17th century, the English language began more and more to use “do” in another way – as a meaningless auxiliary verb to signpost questions for verbs in the present. Instead of “How fare you?”, we got “How do you fare?”, and instead of “How do you?”, we ended up with “How do you do?”.
“How do you do?” ‘fossilized’ at that point, as is fairly common with formal expressions, but over time the continuous aspect came into full use in English and this gave us the modern “How are you doing?” – not at all formal, but still using “do” with that same meaning of “fare”.
Just to finish, if you ever want to sound like someone from the depths of history, it certainly won’t hurt to drop the auxiliary “do” and avoid the continuous aspect:
Historical person A: “Sire, where go you this fine day?”
Historical person B: “I ride for York.”
Historical person A: “Farewell!” (which, as we all know, means “Do well”, “Hope you get on well” etc.)
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