This is a question about the past tense VS the present perfect tense problem.

I would like to know which tense is the one to use in the following instance. I made the verb part in bold.

  1. How did that word come to mean that?

  2. How has that word come to mean that?

For example, the word "fiddle"(I am not asking about this word) as a verb has a second meaning in the entry of Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary as below.

the 2nd meaning as a verb of 'fiddle': [transitive] fiddle something (informal) to change the details or figures of something in order to try to get money dishonestly, or gain an advantage

And the origin of the word is as follows from Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary.

Old English fithele, denoting a violin or similar instrument (originally not an informal or depreciatory term), related to Dutch vedel and German Fiedel, based on Latin vitulari ‘celebrate a festival, be joyful’, perhaps from Vitula, the name of a Roman goddess of joy and victory

As the origin of the word is so different from the meaning here, somebody possibly says one of the two sentences I am asking.

2 Answers 2


When detached from the specific explanatory context ("fiddle"), the question using the simple past can be referring to a word that is current or a word that is now archaic; the question is silent about its currency. It asks only how that meaning arose.

How did that word come to mean that?

That question could be posed about a word current during Elizabethan times but no longer in use. Or it could be posed about a word we use today.

The question with the present perfect implies that the word is still current.

How has that word come to mean that?

Nine times out of ten that question will refer to a word still in use. However, it is not impossible that this question refers to a now archaic word, since we can use the present when speaking imaginatively of events in the past.

Why has Charlemagne sought out scholars from England?

That question is posed from Charlemagne's temporal point of view, not from ours. Imagine that we are there standing beside the ruler. What circumstances have brought Charlemagne to seek scholars from England?

  • Thank you very much as always for the neat, unique explanation. And love the example you took at the last part. Apr 11, 2018 at 20:26

The past tense and the present perfect are both ways of talking about past events.

The past tense is used when talking about a time in the past, the present perfect is used when talking about present state as a consequence of past events.

In this case, both tenses make sense, either could be used. Perhaps if you expect a short answer, a single event, then use past tense. If you expect a sequence of events perhaps use the perfect.

  • Thank you for the simple but clear answer. :) I've got you point and it is very helpful. Apr 11, 2018 at 20:28

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