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Common in movies, radio and TV from the ’30s and ’40s when most harsh words were forbidden. Responding to an insult, getting ready to fight.
I suspect the Why is unnecessary in modern times when a different set of words is taboo. Similar sentences now start directly with You.
But how did Why become the specific introduction to a punch? It doesn’t have any semantic content. Maybe it’s just the nearest writable word to the roar/grunt that occurs more naturally in the situation? Something like our attempts to put words on the predictable sound sequence that precedes a catfight? [See “Oh Long Johnson.”]
“Why” is usually a question, but in this usage it is an exclamation. I suspect it has little relationship to the “why” that is used as a question mainly because it is pronounced differently. In the exclamation, the “H” is not heard. It sounds like “wy.”
What I just wrote is what I already knew but I decided to try a little research on this and found that Google has a hard time handling “why” as anything but a question. I entered “why etymology” and the results were all sites telling the benefits of etymology rather than the etymology of “why.” So I failed to get a history of the word.
As for frequency of use, I have never heard it frequently used in everyday language, but my life doesn’t go back to the 30s and I was only born in the 40s. But I do hear it in movies regularly. Less in newer movies than older.
The Online Etymology Dictionary gives no separate etymology for the interjection use of why, but it does treat it as a separate use: ‘As an interjection of surprise or to call attention to a statement, recorded from 1510s.” why Most dictionaries also list this separate use of why to indicate mild surprise. Some appropriately add other sentiments to its use, such as indignation.
So we know when why, but still not why why or how why.
I can speculate, but have no evidence. This use of why seems mostly to occur as a response to someone’s words or actions. Perhaps it originated in question: “Why [did you do that], you dirty rat?” On the other hand, you might have, “Who’s at the door, Mabel?” “Why, it’s John!” Doesn’t fit my scenario at all. Unless…”[I don’t know] why, [but] it’s John.” Probably a fool’s exercise.
Writer H Allen Smith brought up the exclamatory use of “why” in one of his essays, which would have been some time in the 1940s or early ’50s. His complaint was that when it appears in print, the reader is misled into expecting a question to follow. His recommendation was that the spelling for this purpose (but not for the question word) be changed to “wye”, and for the rest of the book the essay appeared in, he applied that spelling.
It’s unfortunate that it never caught on, or we’d instead be arguing about whether “why” and “wye” are pronounced the same, or do some people aspirate the first one and if so, in what regions and dialects?
One common use of “Why, ” is as follow-up to a rhetorical question. Big difference it makes:
Me, a hero? Why, I am only citizen doing my civic duty.
A big purchase, this? Why, the shipping alone costs an arm an a leg.
This, from a recent Atlantic article:
In real life, it’s easy to find excuses for the shortcomings of our leaders, especially those who echo our beliefs and might plausibly advance our preferred policies. Seeming depravity by a powerful person who agrees with us? Why, they’re just playing by the rules of a corrupt system, unlike those people on the other side!
This use (or function) of “why”, as in “Why you little rascal, you!” is not related to the normal use of “why” in questions like, “Why do Germans wear socks with their sandals?”
It is simply an interjection (of emotion) that indicates a state of surprise or consternation, and it always comes as the first word in a sentence.
I know this because my grandparents and all of my relatives in that generation used “why” quite a lot in that way. They all grew up in Texas, born in the 1910s.
It could also be used in genuine anger, or pretend anger, or sometimes in a scolding tone. It doesn’t always indicate an especially strong emotion.
My grandpa was a pretty sharp domino player. Why, after about two rounds (when everyone had played two dominoes) he could tell you pretty much which dominoes you had in your hand.