Sunday, March 04, 2007

How Come It’s Not Singlish?

There is a widely-held misconception in Singapore that the expression how come? is Singlish. In the late 1990s, the entertainer Najip Ali even joked on national TV that he had been misunderstood when he used the phrase in the UK — his puzzled British interlocutor allegedly thought he was enquiring about his mode of transport.

Surely Najip made this up. The expression is, in fact, of American origin and is common in colloquial American and British English — as the quintessentially American Calvin And Hobbes cartoon above shows!

The Oxford English Dictionary — no less — defines it thus: ‘how did (or does) it come about (that)’. The earliest citation is from John R. Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms of 1848: ‘How-come? rapidly pronounced huc-cum, in Virginia. Doubtless an English phrase, brought over by the original settlers, and propagated even among the negro slaves. The meaning is, How did what you tell me happen? How came it?’

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