Who, What, When, Where, WHY?

Why do most question words in English begin with wh? The answer involves a hypothetical ancient language, a semantic root shared with cheese, and curious people throughout the ages.

To explore why we say why (and who, whom, whose, what, when, where, whether, which, whither, whence, whatever, whoever, and wherefore!), we first need some backstory on the English language.

English is part of a large group of languages called Indo-European. Within Indo-European are many subcategories, including Germanic languages (of which English is a part) and Romance languages (from which English has borrowed heavily through French and Latin). English is most closely related to other members of the Germanic language family, including German, Dutch, and Frisian.

An Indo-European language family tree.
The Indo-European language family tree.
Image by attanattaCC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

Now, enter historical-comparative linguistics. In this field of study, linguists attempt to reconstruct the ancestors of currently spoken languages by comparing similar words in related languages and proposing words that may have preceded them. Proto-Indo-European is a reconstructed language that represents the ancestor of the Indo-European language family.

Interestingly, most of the question words, or interrogatives, in English are derived from the same Proto-Indo-European root *kwo- or *kwi-. (The asterisk next to the word indicates that the word is a hypothetical reconstruction and has not been documented in natural language.) This root word, which likely meant “who” or “what,” then formed the stem for all interrogative pronouns. (Interestingly, this word is also the root of words as diverse as cheese, neither, and quote.) The sense of asking about a person or a thing was extended to asking about a place, a time, or a means of doing something. Different forms emerged to fill the speakers’ need to ask different types of questions. Though modified in form, these question words are now found in languages that descended from this prototypical language. Within many Indo-European languages, these words still display an etymological relationship with each other through a shared initial sound.

Linguists assume that regular sound changes occur over time, producing systematic differences in languages descended from a common ancestor. The most well-known set of sound changes in Germanic languages is known as Grimm’s law. As part of this set of sound changes, the k- sound in *kwo- and related words shifted to a x- sound (this sounds kind of like clearing your throat).

Further spelling and sound changes caused a shift from x- to hw-, and hw- was reduced to simply w- or h-, depending on the vowel that followed. As part of a systematic spelling change in the Middle English period, the spelling of most question words reversed the hw to wh.

And how about how? The word how in Old English was , which may have originally been *hwu. You can imagine how difficult the w- and u- sounds are to say without condensing them into one sound. The condensing of the w- and u-is fairly common because the w- sound is very similar to an elongated u- sound (oo). The spelling of how followed suit.

A map of Indo-European languages in Europe and Asia.
The spread of Indo-European languages in modern Eurasia. Indo-European languages, including English, are widely spoken around the globe. Image by Hayden 120, CC-BY SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Let’s take a quick look at other languages. In German (a close relative of English), question words are wer, was, wann, wo, warum, and so on—even wie, the word for how, begins with a w. German mirrors English in the development of interrogatives beginning with wh, though the h was dropped from the spelling of those words in German.

In Italian (less closely related to English, but within the Indo-European category), sound change stayed closer to the original *kwo-. Most interrogative pronouns begin with a k- sound: chi, che, cosa, quando. Notably, some have departed from this root: dove (where) and perché (why).

Likewise, in Sanskrit (another member of the Indo-European language family), all the interrogative words have retained their initial k- sound: kaha (कः), ke (के), kaa (का), kim (किम्), kadaa (कदा), kimartham (किमर्थम्), and and kutra (कुत्र), among others, all show evidence of descent from the Indo-European *kwo-.

The story is the same throughout the language family: one common ancestor word gave rise to a variety of question words that follow a similar pattern in different languages. And now you know why we say why!


 “*kwo-.” Etymology Online. Accessed November 10, 2020. https://www.etymonline.com/word/*kwo-.

Lyons, J. “Linguistics.” Encyclopeadia Brittanica. https://www.britannica.com/science/linguistics#ref35069.

“Reconstruction:Proto-Indo-European/kʷos.” Wiktionary. Accessed November 10, 2020. https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Reconstruction:Proto-Indo-European/k%CA%B7os.

San Filippo, Michael. “How to Ask Questions in Italian.” March 11, 2019. ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/how-to-ask-questions-in-italian-2011117.

“Simple Interrogative Words: Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How.” Learn Sanskrit Online. Accessed November 10, 2020. https://learnsanskritonline.com/lessons/Simple%20Pronoun%3A%20He%2C%20She%2C%20It%20and%20They%20/simple-interrogative-words-who-when-why-where-and-how#:~:text=We%20have%20learned%20few%20interrogative,’who’%20in%20feminine%20form..

“what.” Etymology Online. Accessed November 10, 2020. https://www.etymonline.com/word/what.

C Is for Cookie

Who invented the cookie? The answer involves the luxuries of the Persian Empire, cookery books, and Dutch funerals.

Properly defined, a cookie is “a small flat or slightly raised cake.” Cookies can be made by cutting shapes from rolled dough (like sugar cookies), dropping dough from a spoon (like chocolate chip cookies), cutting dough into pieces after baking (like brownies), or several other techniques. A typical cookie is made with flour, butter, and sugar, though ingredients vary for different kinds of cookies. Small, simple cakes made with flour have existed since the beginning of baking history, but they were typically not sweet and could not truly be considered cookies.

Our favorite little cakes originated in seventh-century Persia. As one of the first areas to cultivate sugar, a necessary ingredient in cookies, the Persian empire enjoyed a variety of sweet cakes and pastries. Cookies were originally an experiment with a small amount of dough to test the oven temperature before making a larger cake.

Sugar—and cookies—spread throughout Europe by way of the Muslim conquest of Spain, the Crusades, and the spice trade. Cooking techniques and ingredients from the Persian Empire became popular in Northern Europe.

By the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, cookies were common in all classes of society in Europe and were not just a luxury for the rich—filled wafers were sold on the streets of Paris, royal cuisine featured the sweet treats, and “cookery books” for the middle class touted recipes for “Fine Cakes.” These cookery books were essential in preserving and transmitting cookie recipes to future generations.

An early recipe for “Fine Cakes” was recorded in The Good Huswife’s Jewell, a cookbook originally published in 1585.
Image from Thomas Dawson, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

To make fine Cakes.
Take fine flowre and good Samaske water you must haue no other liquour but that, then take sweet butter, two or three yolkes of egges and a good quantity of Suger, and a fewe cloues, and mace, as your Cookes mouth shall serue him, and a lyttle saffron, and a little Gods good about a sponfull if you put in too much they shall arise, cutte them in squares lyke vnto trenchers, and pricke them well, and let your ouen be well swept and lay them vppon papers and so set them into the ouen, do not burne them if they be three or foure dayes olde they bee the better.

Cookies have taken on many different forms over the centuries. Jumbles were hard cookies made with nuts, sweetener, anise, and caraway seeds, and made great food for long journeys. Crispy, twice-baked cookies were known as biscuits or biscotti. Tea cookies, also called teacakes or butter cookies, were rich and buttery shortbread cookies, less sweet than many American cookies today.

A plate of shortbread cookies.

Dutch immigrants brought tea cookies to New Amsterdam in the 1620s. Their introduction of cookies to the United States has left its mark—the English word cookie comes from the Dutch koekje, a diminutive of koek, which means “cake.” In 1703, the Dutch served koeckjes at a funeral in New York.

Cookies that involve creaming butter and sugar together emerged around the eighteenth century, around the same time that baking powder was introduced as a chemical leavening agent. Though cookies were still special treats, affordable sugar and flour allowed more people to start baking cookies more often, and cookie recipes abounded.

Chocolate chip cookie dough

In the twentieth century, the invention of modern ovens with thermostats yielded ever more cookie recipes: snickerdoodles and butter drop cookies and sand tarts. Homemakers—homebakers, one could say—made up new recipes based on what they had on hand at the time. Raisin cookies were introduced when sugar was scarce during World War II, for example, and peanut butter cookies developed along with the introduction of peanut butter in government-sponsored school lunch programs.

The cookie, in all its forms and shapes, has become a staple of dessert in Europe, the United States, and beyond. What’s your favorite type of cookie?


“Cookie Research: History, Techniques, and Fun Facts,” December 12, 2019, Badges for All, https://badgesforall.org/2019/12/11/cookie-research-history-techniques-and-fun-facts/.

“Cookies,” Encyclopaedia Brittanica, March 17, 2020, accessed November 3, 2020, https://www.britannica.com/topic/cookie-food.

“History of Cookies,” What’s Cooking America, accessed November 3, 2020, https://whatscookingamerica.net/History/CookieHistory.htm.

Kitchen Crew, “The History of Cookies,” October 1, 2018, Just a Pinch, https://www.justapinch.com/blog/articles/read/209514/the-history-of-cookies/.

Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, s.v. “cookie,” accessed November 3, 2020, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/cookie.

“The History of Cookies,” updated October 2008, The Nibble, https://www.thenibble.com/reviews/main/cookies/cookies2/cookie-history.asp.

Trick or Treat

Why do children trick or treat on Halloween night? The answer involves traditions spanning centuries and continents—including placating mischievous spirits, praying for the dead, and playing pranks on unsuspecting neighbors.

Trick-or-treating can be linked to several different places and practices. The earliest known door-to-door begging ritual occurred during the Celtic festival of Samhain, the ancient precursor to Halloween. The Celts, who lived about 2,000 years ago, believed that the spirits of the dead could return to the land of the living during the end of the harvest season. During Samhain, people thought they could protect themselves from bad spirits by impersonating them, dressing up like ghosts or demons to ward off the actual ghosts and demons. Banquet tables were also arrayed with food to placate the unwelcome spirits.

In ninth-century England, Christian and pagan traditions were fused into a holiday then called All Hallow’s Eve, followed by All Saints Day. In the medieval period, a practice called “souling” or “mumming” took place as children and sometimes poor adults traveled from door to door in costume begging for food or money. People typically offered pastries called “soul cakes” in exchange for prayers for the dead.

In Scotland and Ireland, a similar tradition called “guising” involved an exchange of songs, tricks, or other performances for fruit, nuts, or coins.

All Hallow’s Eve festivities in Ireland, 1833.
Snap-Apple Night by Daniel Maclise, 1833, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

However familiar these traditions might seem, the history of modern trick-or-treating in America likely stems not from All Hallow’s Eve in the British Isles but from a German-American tradition called belsnickling.

Belsnickling was actually a Christmas tradition in which children would dress in costume and visit the homes of neighbors to see if the adults could guess who they were. Any child with a clever enough disguise would be rewarded with a treat. Belsnickling is the most likely precursor to trick-or-treating in America, but it may also have fused with Irish and Scottish traditions to form the Halloween tradition we know today.

So why do we say trick or treat? No one knows exactly when this exact phrase came about, but a 1927 Alberta newspaper was the first the report the phrase in use.

In eighteenth-century America, Halloween was all tricks and no treats. This was nothing new—“Devil’s Night” or “Mischief Night” had long been associated with pre-Halloween harvest festivities, and Samhain celebrations often featured mischief and mayhem. Up until the mid-twentieth century, adolescents gleefully pranked adults and terrorized younger children on Halloween, which was a great nuisance to everyone else and even became dangerous at times.

During the Great Depression, communities took control of the pranking situation by encouraging and organizing house-to-house Halloween parties to keep would-be pranksters otherwise engaged. Families had a limited amount of money to spend on parties, so the house-to-house format was a hit, and trick-or-treating began to gain traction. Post-World War II, the rise of suburbs in America provided safe, family-oriented communities in which trick-or-treating was cemented as a mainstay of Halloween. Additionally, with the end of wartime sugar rationing, candy companies in the 1950s saw an opportunity to market chocolate, candy corn, and other goodies to hand out to trick-or-treaters, thus displacing homemade treats, toys, coins, and nuts that used to fill the bellies of tiny witches, ghosts, and goblins.

trick or treaters in costume

Thus, institutionalized ritual begging is now solidly planted in American soil, along with pumpkin-shaped Reese’s cups and fun-size candy bars. We’ll take the treats over the tricks any day!


Bannatyne, Lesley. “When Halloween Was All Tricks and No Treats,” October 27, 2017, Smithsonian Magazine, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/when-halloween-was-all-tricks-no-treats-180966996/.

Eveleth, Rose. “The History of Trick-or-Treating is Weirder than You Thought,” October 18, 2012, Smithsonian Magazine, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/the-history-of-trick-or-treating-is-weirder-than-you-thought-79408373/.

“How Trick-or-Treating Became a Halloween Tradition,” updated October 21, 2020, History.com, https://www.history.com/news/halloween-trick-or-treating-origins.

Morton, Lisa. Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween, 2013, Reaktion Books.

Soniac, Matt. “Why Do We Go Trick-or-Treating on Halloween?” October 29, 2015, MentalFloss, https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/53292/why-do-we-go-trick-or-treating-halloween.

The Red-Carpet Treatment

Why are Hollywood stars received with a red carpet at events? The answer involves Greek gods, Renaissance paintings, and railroad cars.

The first recorded instance of a red carpet is in the play Agamemnon, written by the Greek tragedian Aeschylus and first performed in 458 BCE. Agamemnon, the king of Mycenae and commander of the Greeks in the Trojan war, is greeted by his scheming wife, Clytemnestra, who unfurls a carpet of crimson robes for him to walk upon—“a floor of crimson broideries.”

What a welcome! But Agamemnon is suspicious—only the gods are treated to such luxury, and he is but a mortal.

“’Tis God that hath / Such worship; and for mortal man to press / Rude feet upon this broidered loveliness …/ I vow there is danger in it,” he says, wary of the wrath of the gods that might come upon one who was so prideful.

(Spoiler alert: Agamemnon obliges, and he is subsequently murdered by Clytemnestra.)

The use of a red carpet to welcome the gods must have been in place before this time in order for the tradition to be established, but most of what we know comes after this time.

In Renaissance paintings, Oriental rugs lined the floors leading up to the thrones and palaces of rulers, patterned with red and gold. The provided a path of luxury and a mark of social and political dominance as kings and queens ascended to their seats of power.

Why red? Scarlet dye was once reserved for the wealthy; it was made from the cochineal scale insect which rendered it expensive and difficult to make. Additionally, the color red has long been associated with power, passion, and dominance. Nothing calls for attention quite like a bright crimson banner announcing who’s in charge.

In the start of the twentieth century, railroad cars began giving first-class passengers the royal treatment by welcoming them on board with a red carpet—a mark of exclusive luxury and high status.

The 1920s saw the beginning of the red-carpet treatment for Hollywood stars: in 1922, Robin Hood stars Douglas Fairbanks, Wallace Beery, and Enid Bennett stepped out on a red carpet to greet fans at the first true Hollywood premiere. The carpet stuck, and with it came flamboyant displays of wealth, fame, and fashion.

So is the red carpet a reflection of a hallowed reverence for actors and entertainers? Do we bestow upon celebrities the honors once reserved only for deity and royalty? Is Hollywood the aristocracy of modern America?

Let us know what you think in the comments!


Aeschylus. Agamemnon. 458 BCE. Sparknotes. https://www.sparknotes.com/lit/agamemnon/full-text/the-agamemnon/.

Bass-Krueger, Maude. “The Secret History of the Color Red.” Google Arts and Culture. https://artsandculture.google.com/theme/the-secret-history-of-the-color-red/GwLyao99SLXVKg?hl=en

Baker, Lindsay. “Where Does the Red Carpet Come From? BBC. February 22, 2016. https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20160222-where-does-the-red-carpet-come-from?referer=https%3A%2F%2Fen.wikipedia.org%2F.

Henderson, Amy. “What Is the Origin of Hollywood’s Red Carpet?” Smithsonian Magazine. October 25, 2013. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/what-is-the-origin-of-hollywoods-red-carpet-180949038/.

The Jack of All Lanterns

Why do we carve jack-o’-lanterns for Halloween? The answer involves shady deals with the devil, Irish folklore, and some scary-looking turnips.

An Irish legend holds that a man named “Stingy Jack” had a drink with the devil one day. True to his name, Jack didn’t want to buy the drinks, so he tricked the devil into turning himself into a coin to pay for the drinks. Instead of using the coin, Jack put the money in his pocket next to his trusty silver cross—which, according to folklore, prevents the devil from transforming back into his original shape.

Well, now it was time for the devil to make a deal with Jack. The devil convinces Jack to let him free on the condition that when Jack dies, the devil will not claim his soul. But Jack has been a bad boy—when he dies, Jack is not worthy for heaven, but the devil also won’t accept him into hell, as they agreed. Instead, the devil sends Jack off into the darkness with only a burning ember to illuminate his way. Jack carved out a turnip and placed the burning ember inside to create a lantern. The soul of “Jack of the lantern” has wandered the earth ever since, with only the lantern to illuminate his way.

Based on this account, the Irish copied Jack’s lantern by hollowing out turnips or potatoes and carving demonic faces onto them. Lighting up these diabolical lanterns was thought to scare off Jack’s wandering soul and other evil spirits.

turnip lantern
Photo by Bodrugan, October 31, 2012, CC BY SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Irish immigrants to the United States brought this tradition with them, using pumpkins rather than turnips in the New World. Though jack-o’-lanterns were not originally associated with Halloween, it wasn’t too far of a jump to display spooky decorations during a holiday of haunts and howls.

This is just one of many holiday traditions that come from legends about the supernatural that went through a process of synthesis with other beliefs and traditions.

What’s your favorite Halloween tradition?


Grannan, Cydney. “Why Do We Carve Pumpkins at Halloween?” Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed October 12, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/story/why-do-we-carve-pumpkins-at-halloween.

History.com Editors. “How Jack O’Lanterns Originated in Irish Myth.” Updated October 28, 2019. History. https://www.history.com/news/history-of-the-jack-o-lantern-irish-origins.

“The History behind Pumpkins and Halloween.” Halloween Express. Accessed October 12, 2020. https://www.halloweenexpress.com/the-history-behind-pumpkins-and-halloween/.

Knock Knock

Who’s there?

The history of knock-knock jokes spans Shakespeare plays, castle guards, and parlor games, and the call-and-answer format has landed itself a permanent place in the ranks of American humor.

fancy door waitting for a knock

First, let’s take a look at Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The audience hears a rapping sound. Enter the porter, stage right.

Here’s a knocking indeed! If a man were
porter of hell gate, he should have old turning the
key.(Knock.) Knock, knock, knock! Who’s there, i’
th’ name of Beelzebub? Here’s a farmer that hanged
himself on th’ expectation of plenty. Come in time!
Have napkins enough about you; here you’ll sweat
for ’t.(Knock.) Knock, knock! Who’s there, in th’
other devil’s name? Faith, here’s an equivocator
that could swear in both the scales against either
scale, who committed treason enough for God’s
sake yet could not equivocate to heaven. O, come in,
equivocator.(Knock.) Knock, knock, knock! Who’s
there? Faith, here’s an English tailor come hither for
stealing out of a French hose. Come in, tailor. Here
you may roast your goose.(Knock.) Knock, knock!
Never at quiet.—What are you?—But this place is
too cold for hell. I’ll devil-porter it no further. I had
thought to have let in some of all professions that go
the primrose way to th’ everlasting bonfire.(Knock.)
Anon, anon! (Shakespeare, 2.3.1–20)

Who’s there? Three shifty guests, apparently, in the name of the devil. This is the first known use of the knock-knock trope, though it is used in a monologue rather than a joke.

Another potential origin of the call-and-response routine comes from Medieval night watches. When people wanted to enter a castle after night fell, they would have to call to the guards to get inside. A guard would respond “Who’s there?” and engage in a back-and-forth exchange about the person’s identity and purpose for entering the castle. You can imagine that a bored guard or mischievous guest might use this routine to play jokes on one another.

spooky castle at night
Photo by Flickr on Pexels.com

Fast forward to the twentieth century. “Do you know?” jokes began to pick up traction around the year 1900, as described in the Oakland Tribune by Merely McEvoy:

A jokester would walk up to someone and pop a question like: “Do you know Arthur?” And the unsuspecting listener would reply, “Arthur who?” And the jokester would say “Arthurmometer!” and run off laughing. (Weeks)

McEvoy made a poignant observation in his 1922 article: “Jokes, like comets have definite orbits. Most of them travel in ellipses of 20 years.” The “do you know?” type of joke had returned, 20 years later, and this time it had the courtesy to knock.

In the 1920s and 30s, the familiar knock-knock routine we know today took center stage. It may have been popularized by a children’s game called Buff. A veritable knock-knock craze swept the nation as Americans turned to friends, family, and complete strangers with a gleam in their eye, a simple refrain on their tongues: “Knock knock.”

Telling knock-knock jokes became a favored parlor game, knock-knock contests discovered the best and brightest jokesters of the time, and radio stations broadcasted knock-knock jokes inspired by the presidential election—a prime opportunity, since the vice-presidential candidate was Colonel Frank Knox.

By the 1950s, knock-knock jokes had spread across the world, making people groan all over Australia, South Africa, India, England, and other countries. Some used different words for knocking, like “Toc-toc” in France or “Kon-kon” in Korea and Japan. Whether you love them or hate them, it seems like knock-knock jokes are here to stay.

What’s your best knock-knock joke? Remember—you are following in the footsteps of Shakespeare.


Weeks, Linton. “The Secret History of Knock Knock Jokes.” NPR. March 3, 2015. https://www.npr.org/sections/npr-history-dept/2015/03/03/389865887/the-secret-history-of-knock-knock-jokes

Wonderopolis. “Who Invented the Knock Knock Joke?” Accessed October 1, 2020. https://www.wonderopolis.org/wonder/who-invented-the-knock-knock-joke.

Wood, Jennifer M. “8 Moments in Knock Knock Joke History.” MentalFloss. April 1, 2014. https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/55962/8-moments-knock-knock-joke-history.

Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. Edited by Barbara Mowat, Paul Werstine, Michael Poston, and Rebecca Niles. Folger Shakespeare Library. Accessed on October 1, 2020. Washington: Folger Shakespeare Library. https://shakespeare.folger.edu/shakespeares-works/a-midsummer-nights-dream/.