“How do you do?”

The greeting is such a common phrase that you probably don’t even notice when it’s used, even if it isn’t used as often as you think. In fact, nowadays, “how do you do” has been relegated for use only in formal occasions, or when impersonating/mocking the upper crust (with that matching Trans-Atlantic twang).

Particularly in England, “how do you do” is less of a greeting and more of a marker of breeding: the upper-class had “how do you do”, and everyone else used “hello”. How Do You Do is best used in formal dinners with crystal and gold silverware; Hello is more of a greasy-spoon-in-a-lipstick-stained-coffee-cup kind of thing.

But it is the usage of How Do You Do in the upper-classes that dictated its usage. Despite being framed as a question, how do you do isn’t supposed to be answered, at least, not really. The proper answer, according to Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan, to how do you do was, well, how do you do too:

Lord Darlington: How do you do, Lady Windermere?

Lady Windermere: How do you do, Lord Darlington?

(Lady Windermere’s Fan, 1892)

Etymology

But to truly understand How Do You Do, one must go all the way back to its origins; specifically, the 14th century. See, it was during this time that the verb “do” began to take form, eventually meaning to prosper, or thrive. In fact, you can still see the use of the original meaning in gardening, where green thumbs would call hardy plants as “good doer”.

Photo credits from: The British Library

“How Do You Do” Across History

As words do, “do” became part of everyday parlance, eventually finding it relating to social interaction, particularly by asking one’s health. One of the first instances of the word “do” being used to ask about someone’s well-being can be found in The Paston Letters, a collection of correspondence between the Norfolk noble family of Paston:

 

I wold ye shuld send me word howghe ye doo.

(The Paston Letters. 1463)

(On an interesting note, The Paston Letters serves as a rich etymological source for many English phrases, including the first-known use of many idioms like make no bones about it, hugger-mugger, fool’s paradise, among others)

As an actual inquiry into a person’s health, How Do You Do was recorded in The Book of Martyrs, a 16th century account by John Foxe on the persecution of Protestants:

God be thanked for you, How do you?

(The Book of Martyrs. 1563)

In this example, How Do You Do was basically the 16th century version of “how are you”, in the sense that it was an actual question that required an actual response.

From the 16th century to the 18th century, various other examples of How Do You Do can be found in different documents, with several variations of spelling, from how de, howedye,  how-do-ye, and even: howdie. In fact, many lexicographers believe (despite a lack of evidence) that the American “howdy” can ultimately trace its origins back to how do you do, much to the chagrin of their haughty counterparts across the pond.

Some lexicographers (American lexicographers, of course) push the theory further and postulate that many modern, American idioms like “how’s it hangin’” or “how’s tricks” (the latter phasing out around the mid-30’s) were also derived from How Do You Do. Again, evidence of this is lacking, but with the American penchant for playing with language, it’s not a theory to be dismissed so easily.

From the 18th century onwards, how do you do transformed from question to greeting. In the 1740 Samuel Richardson novel Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded, how do you do as a greeting was used by one of the characters:

O my good old Acquaintances, said I, I joy to see you ? How do you do Rachel? How do you all do?

(Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded. 1740)

Samuel Richardson’s usage was also one of the first examples of how do you do in its modern form; that is, with the second “do”. Theories suggest that this was a consequence of the phrase’s transformation from question to greeting.

So What Do I Reply to “How Do You Do”?

The answer to this depends on who you ask. British greetings are just that: greetings. Thus, in British English, “how do you do?” requires no reply, or, if one can’t help themselves, can be replied with another “how do you do?”.

Anything beyond that might even seem strange. Whether this is a reflection or a sense of British propriety or just a natural evolution of the language, how do you do, at least to our neighbors across the pond, is a statement.

Americans, on the other hand, will say differently. To us, how do you do is a question: why else would it have a question mark? In America, a how do you do can be replied with any kind of reply, from a curt “Good, and you?”, to a blow-by-blow account of how your day went. Again, depends on who you ask.