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October 31, 2023

"Because tired" - a short history of 'because X' constructions

Several years ago, the construction ‘because [noun]’ became a meme on the internet. We started seeing sentences like "I can't go to a party because tired" and "I want this because reasons." The American Dialect Society even declared “because” their 2013 word of the year:

“This past year, the very old word because exploded with new grammatical possibilities in informal online use,” [Ben] Zimmer said. “No longer does because have to be followed by of or a full clause. Now one often sees tersely worded rationales like ‘because science’ or ‘because reasons.’ You might not go to a party ‘because tired.’ As one supporter put it, because should be Word of the Year ‘because useful!’”

Giving ‘because’ the word of the year status spurred a great deal of thought about what ‘because’ is doing in constructions like “I can’t go to a party because tired” or “I want this because reasons.” Ben Zimmer, writing for Language Log this time, gave a run down of various grammatical interpretations of this new because. Here’s a short collection of posts on this use of "because":


Neal Whitman

Sentence First

Geoffrey Pullum

Where does it come from?

How old is this usage? One of the earlier examples of it is in the ‘because racecar’ meme from It comes from a craigslist posting for a Mazda MX-3, written in terse, short language. “1992 Mazda MX3 GS for sale. Does not run, needs motor. Completely stripped inside because race car.” This style is similar to that used in newspaper headlines.

There is a fair amount of speculation as to where this usage comes from. Neal Whitman traces it to humorous usages like “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade, because hey, free lemons.” The ‘hey’ here lets you introduce clauses if you like: “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade, because hey, free lemons are delicious.”

Whitman finds a relatively early example of ‘because NOUN’ from 2008:

“[M]arket capitalism leads to political liberalism because… well, because FREEDOM, that’s why!”

Ben Zimmer compares the ‘because [noun]’ constructions to humorous uses like the following:

Leslie: What the hell are you doing out here?
Ben: Sorry, babe, I am off City Hall property. You have to stop. Firewall.
Leslie: Wrong. All roads and bridges fall under the purview of the Pawnee Department of Transportation, which is located on the fourth floor of City Hall. Firewall down. Stay frosty, Wyatt. We're just getting started.
Ben: OK, well, that's interesting. You know why?
Leslie: Why?
Ben: Because… (runs away)

Similar examples date to 1871. Courtesy of the Oxford English Dictionary:

1.b. 1871–
Used elliptically in answer to a question, implying that a fuller reply is being withheld for some reason.
The little fishes of the sea, They sent an answer back to me. The little fishes' answer was ‘We cannot do it, Sir, because—’.
‘L. Carroll’, Through Looking-glass vi. 132

‘Why didn't you leave the bottle?’ ‘Because!’ I said shortly. I wasn't going to explain my feelings on the matter.
‘M. Carroll’, Dead Trouble x. 175Citation details for ‘M. Carroll’, Dead Trouble

Gretchen McCulloch argues instead that the following 2011 comic was influential in spreading the ‘because’ construction, and argues for a shortening process:

I want this because of reasons
Because of reasons
because reasons

I don’t believe that there is just one process that created ‘because NOUN’. The construction appears to have independently been created multiple times. The ‘of’ in “because of [NOUN]” does not carry any semantic meaning, so it’s easy to remove it and preserve the meaning. Similarly, imagine a full version of the racecar meme: “[It is] complete stripped inside because [it is a] racecar.” Removing both ‘it is’ does not affect the meaning.

‘Because More Expeditious’ - An Older Use of “Because X”

I have found a dramatically earlier usage of ‘because [adjective]’ than is commonly reported, and which I have not (yet) seen cited as a possible model for the ‘because [noun]’. This is an academic or highly literate usage of ‘because [adjective].’

“but 'tis more probable the latter, because more expeditious.” - 1713. INCOGNITA: OR, LOVE and DUTY RECONCIL’D
“Meanwhile the master saw no danger which would result from this preaching, unless he might foresee that eventually he should find the relation so responsible, and the character of the servant so well fitted for it as to render emancipation expedient, and a duty because expedient.” - 1831. Relation of Master and Servant, as exhibited in the New Testament, by S. Taylor
“As justifiable, the legal right, is such, as the thing, the most immediate and necessary, to do; and as the only thing feasible, or suitable, under the state of circumstances; but, when the exigence of occasion had passed away, and a normal condition of society had obtained, that which had been made right, as legal, and because expedient*, has now to be unmade, *because inexpedient.” - 1869. Of the commonwealth; its freehold and its freedom, by a county and borough elector
“So now he can know God more than he knows his brother: clearly known more, because more present*; known more, *because more within him*; known more, *because more certain.” - 1905. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church
“Metallic cabinet work is superior to wood:
1. Because more durable, being stronger in construction and unaffected by climate or changes of seasons.
2. Because more sanitary, being impervious to microbes and vermin and more readily kept clean.
3. Because more convenient, having no parts to get out of order, shrink, or swell.
4. Because more agreeable in use, all parts being always usable and made with smooth, rounded surfaces and with suitable working tops.
5. Because more attractive, being more substantial in appearance and also artistically finished with surfaces subject to no deterioration.
6. Because more economical ultimately, with first costs little greater than wood. 7. Because entirely incombustible.” - 1902 Metallic Filing Devices, Fixtures and Furniture for Public Buildings and General File Rooms
“By the end of the 1860s these changes became more visible, because more formal and official.” - 1999. Industry and Empire: From 1750 to the Present Day
“The limpness of a warm presents a bit of an obstacle to the critic's Freudian interpretation, but he readily overcomes it by citing the secondary medieval meaning of “gusano”: the more appropriate, because vertebrate, “vĂ­bora” (“viper”).” - 2001. Recovering Spain's feminist tradition

These examples show that ‘because more [adjective]” and “because [adjective]” existed in a variety of styles from the 1710s to the modern day. Religious commentary, industry publications, academic books, and even popular books. (I can report that one of these ‘because’ constructions appears in ‘Class: A guide to the American status system’, but I did not write the page it happened on. Bad habit!)

Where did this use of ‘because’ come from? It is hard to say. I can’t find a quotation of it in the Oxford English dictionary. It’s used throughout the 1700s and 1800s, but always dwarfed by other uses of ‘because.’

Indeed, this obscurity is so that some commenters on the English Language Learner Stack Exchange found it ungrammatical. The accepted answer incorrectly attributes the use of ‘because adjective’ to the recent slangy use. (The answer by sumelic is more correct.) None of the articles on ‘because [noun]’ I’ve read so far mention this older usage of ‘because [more] [adjective]’.

As idle speculation, I mention that French has a similar construction where the word 'car' (because) takes a direct object.

"C'est un chemin nefaste car passif, aliene, perdu" - Simone de Beauvoir, the Second Sex
"It is a nefarious path because passive, alien, lost"

Could this "because [adjective]" usage have been influential on the "because [noun]" construction and its variations? Possibly - it’s not as if there aren’t highly literate people on the internet who enjoy reading older texts. But I doubt it is a direct inheritance. For one, I could not find examples of ‘because [noun]’ in any older texts, only ‘because [adjective]’.

I would instead say that this usage shows that for a long time, we have had both the constructions ‘because it is [more] [adjective]’ coexisting with ‘because [more] [adjective]’. Eliding the words between ‘because’ and the adjective hasn’t affected our ability to understand the phrase. Since the ‘of’ in “because of reasons” is hardly contributing to meaning, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that “because [noun]” came around. The memeification of it from 2011-2013 just propelled it from a fringe or individual usage to part of a meme-y, informal style. Perhaps the emergence of this construction was just a matter of time, because history.