New life for whence?

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Below is a guest post by Bob Ladd:

The post “Whither, whence, whatever” of June 7 was prompted by the phrase whence [she] was exiled (from a book review in the Guardian), which I sent in to Language Log Plaza.  The context made it clear that the intended meaning was ‘where she was exiled to’, but if you assume the basic meaning of whence as it existed in ordinary English for a good few centuries (‘from where’), then it actually meant ‘where she was exiled from’.  To convey the intended meaning, whence should have been whither (‘to where’).

In his post, MYL showed that both words have been falling out of use since about 1750, and suggested the lapse might have been a “Fay-Cutler malapropism”, in which a word is replaced by another that sounds like it.  However, an early commenter on the post (Andrew Usher) suggested a different explanation: “perhaps, the original wording was ‘to whence’, which was then mis-corrected?”  This made no sense to me at the time, because to whence is even worse than just whence – at least, if you think whence means ‘from where’. I figured that Andrew had made some sort of slip in his comment and at first I thought no more about it.  But then I wondered, what if people really do say to whence?

It didn’t take Google long to find me occurrences of strings like ‘to whence he returned’, ‘to whence he moved’, and so on.

– From a website on historical buildings in Connecticut: “He died at Watertown [to whence he moved in 1788] in 1802, aged eighty-four.”

– From a Wikipedia spinoff called Textus Receptus: “The French lifted his travel restrictions, permitting him to return to Tübingen in 1948, to whence he returned to live with his wife.”

– From a 2019 post on the blog E-International Relations on the problem of borders in cyberspace: “Adolph Eichmann, a former Nazi leader, was kidnapped by the State of Israel from his home in Argentina to whence he escaped at the end of World War II.”

– From a 1999 PhD thesis from Edinburgh University: “He had also been a (presumably high-ranking) monk at the abbey of Dunfermline, to whence he returned in his old age.”  Elsewhere the author of that thesis also uses from whence: “It is possible that the catchment area, as it were, for Melrose Abbey's lay brethren recruits was not confined to Teviotdale and the house's Scottish properties, but also extended into the northern English society from whence its original convent of choir monks had come.”

In all of these cases I would have written to which, not to whence.  But the fact that the Edinburgh thesis-writer uses both to whence and from whence suggests that what everyone is doing here is treating whence as a fancy oblique form of where when it follows a preposition.  Or more generally, whither is simply dead, but whence lives on in some grammatical and stylistic contexts.  This seems to have been the situation for a long time, as shown by this quote from a 1923 Australian provincial newspaper:

“Viscount Leverhulme has arrived [in New York], en route for Australia, for whence he leaves on December 2 by the S.S.Niagara, and thence round the world.”

And there are more recent instances with other prepositions as well:

– From a sci-fi fantasy website: “‘Tag! You’re it Gin!’ Kin smiled and giggled as she ran off. Gin stared down at the place at whence he was tagged before running off to find someone to tag.”

– From deliberately archaic writing in a different sci-fi context: “Know ye that he which was known in life as Peter, son of David confessed freely to breaching the Sabbath day, by whence he hath violated the fourth commandment of Our Lord.”

These examples seem to show that the old-fashioned feel of whence is part of its present-day charm, and the fact that both come from fantasy books and websites is probably not a coincidence. (I’m reliably informed that “whence is definitely used as a lexical marker in fantasy media and roleplaying to help immerse people in the fiction (think Elrond in Lord of the Rings)”).  But whence seems to provide a rhetorical boost in more strait-laced contexts too. Here are two examples (courtesy of Anne Cutler) of the same gimmick being used to give an attention-grabbing title to articles about business trends:

– 2006: “Whence goeth KM [Knowledge Management]?”

– 2012: “Whence goeth NIH Investigators?”

Here there’s not even a preposition to justify whence, only the elevated style.  So it seems likely that the Guardian reviewer’s “whence [she] was exiled” was not actually a Fay-Cutler malapropism, but rather an example of a new usage that may be breathing new life into an old-fashioned word.  We know not whence this trend will end up.



  1. Alex said,

    June 15, 2020 @ 11:00 am

    The "correct" usage of 'whither' and 'whence' always confuses me, even more so in that German 'woher' also ends in -her but means 'whence'!

    Perhaps some confusion comes from people using 'hence' as a direct substitute for 'furthermore' or 'therefore' in school essays. In that context, it has a sense of "moving forward," at least rhetorically, and that sense may carry over into 'whence.'

    The discussion reminds me of a time when someone told me to "come yonder," which actually confused me for a heartbeat before I realized that, of course, she just meant "come here."

  2. Belial Issimo said,

    June 15, 2020 @ 11:14 am

    Abraham Lincoln got it right in the "House Divided" speech ["If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it"] but of course we can't all be Lincoln.

  3. Rachael Churchill said,

    June 15, 2020 @ 11:37 am

    Makes sense. People are using "whence" as a fancy substitute for "where", regardless of context, just like they use "whom" as a fancy substitute for "who", regardless of context.

  4. Sniffnoy said,

    June 15, 2020 @ 12:02 pm

    I have a suspicion that the whole "to whence" thing comes from the phrase "to whence it came", which has "to whence" but which also has "whence" used in the original sense. But if you don't know what "whence" means, and you read this, you may take away some different ideas about how to use "whence". ("It" here can of course be replaced by another pronoun.)

  5. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    June 15, 2020 @ 1:01 pm


    Nowhence: "From no place. (Also with from.)".
    Whenceforth: "b. From which time onward (With redundant from.)"
    Whence-from: adv. † Obs. [An inversion of from whence: cf. hence-from, thence-from.]

    Oxford English Dictionary online (oed) second edition index:
    All one has to do is replace the associate number of an entry of the index in the online address:

  6. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 15, 2020 @ 1:29 pm

    Sniffnoy: Maybe not the whole "to whence" thing. Some people may have thought it was a fancy version of "where", as people have suggested.

    By the way, let's not forget a burlesque lyric from Guys and Dolls:

    So take back your mink
    To from whence it came
    And tell them to hollanderize it
    For some other dame.

  7. BobW said,

    June 15, 2020 @ 2:30 pm

    @Rachael Churchill – I rarely use "whom," but when I do I put it where "him" would fit, and use "whom" where "him" would fit, because that sounds right to me. Not languagey enough to remember any kind of rule.

  8. BobW said,

    June 15, 2020 @ 2:32 pm

    Oops. "Who" for "he…"

  9. Cervantes said,

    June 15, 2020 @ 2:56 pm

    Well, it's easy to see how it originally meant "the place or source from which . . . " but since it would be common to say, "returned to whence he came" you're getting the phrase "to whence" in your head. Wither, in my experience, is often used but as a deliberate archaism, in order to be cute. "Whither goest thou?" I don't think it's possible to use it without seeming archaic, even though everybody knows what it means.

  10. David L said,

    June 15, 2020 @ 3:46 pm

    Another reason for 'whither' falling out of favor is that people have trouble spelling it-'whither' or 'wither'?-but they know there's no word 'wence' so 'whence' is a safer bet.

  11. cameron said,

    June 15, 2020 @ 3:50 pm

    I agree with the commenters above who have suggested that these writers are just using the word "whence" because they think it's a more formal version of "which".

  12. Allan from Iowa said,

    June 15, 2020 @ 7:21 pm

    Here/hence/hither, there/thence/thither, and where/whence/whither are the only English words with separate forms for the ablative (motion away from) and lative (motion towards) cases.

  13. DaveK said,

    June 15, 2020 @ 8:57 pm

    I only got them straight after reading King Lear in college:

    “Men must endure their going hence, even as their coming hither.”

  14. Philip Taylor said,

    June 16, 2020 @ 5:07 am

    I notice that a number of contributors have spoken of the phrase "to whence" [1], as if it were an everyday occurrence, but I have to confess I have never encountered it in the wild. "From whence", on the other hand, I do encounter from time to time, and may even have been guilty of using it myself, but whilst it is tautologous it also serves to clarify the direction of travel.

    [1] E.g., Sniffnoy — « I have a suspicion that the whole "to whence" thing comes from the phrase "to whence it came" ».

  15. Bob Ladd said,

    June 16, 2020 @ 8:05 am

    @Philip Taylor, @Sniffnoy
    I think Sniffnoy is right. There's no doubt that phrases like to whence it came are perfectly grammatical under the original meaning of whence. When I was doing my Google searches I found more cases of that sort (e.g. '…durst not turn to whence he is fled' or 'I know my little Jonathan has returned to whence he came') than I did of the newer uses I was looking for. The problem is that, if you don't know the original meaning of whence, the syntax of these things is ambiguous. In the "correct" parse, the object of the preposition to is the whole clause whence he came; the new use of whence suggests rather that the object of the preposition is just whence, making whence some sort of relative pronoun or something. From there it's just a short step to the examples I cited in the post.

  16. Philip Taylor said,

    June 16, 2020 @ 8:32 am

    OK, I'll go along with that : "he has returned to whence he came" = "he has return to [the place] from where he came".

  17. Robert Coren said,

    June 16, 2020 @ 9:50 am

    Well, now I have a Walt Kelly poem (and, worse, the setting of it recorded on the album "Songs of the Pogo") stuck in my head, so I'm forced (forced, I tell you) to share it:

    I was stirring up a stirrup-cup
    In a stolen silver stein,
    When I chanced upon a ladle
    Who was once my valentine.
    "Oh, whence that wince, my wench?" quoth I;
    She blushed and said, "Oh, sir,
    Old Momma isn't stirring
    Since my Daddy's been in stir."

    (I may have the parents reversed, I'm not sure.)

    When I first encountered this as a child, I had no idea how to parse "whence that wince".

  18. Philip Taylor said,

    June 16, 2020 @ 10:00 am

    "since my Daddy's been in stir". OK, I have to ask, is being "in stir" different to being in jail and/or being in prison ? Or does it subsume both ? And in <Am.E>, does "stein" retain the German /ʃt/ or is it simplified to /st/ ?

  19. Lillie Dremeaux said,

    June 16, 2020 @ 11:28 am

    Jerry, I knew there was a "to from whence it came" lyric or line of poetry rattling around somewhere in the back of my brain … it was the "Guys and Dolls" line. Thanks for sharing that or I might never have retrieved it.

    And in case anyone else had to look up "Hollanderizing":

  20. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    June 16, 2020 @ 2:05 pm

    @ Philip Taylor — Stein is /st/ in my experience in northeastern U.S.

    I don’t know whether “stir” applies to jail or prison or both, but as far as I know, both jail and prison are loosely defined. I live in Pennsylvania, and the county “jails” are all called county prisons. The state has prisons, and there are federal prisons in the state. The state prisons are all “state correctional institutions” and their names are generally formatted “SCI” plus place name. The federal facilities are variously called federal penitentiaries or federal correctional institutions; there is also a federal prison camp and a federal detention center.

    I lived in Kentucky for a while, and we moved there as the local election season was heating up. There were campaign signs along the road urging us to vote for so-and-so for jailer. The county sheriff did not run the jail, and the job of overseeing it was not only an administrative position, but an elected one. That county built a new jail, which is officially a “detention center” — but it is still run by a jailer.

    In New York State, where I grew up, state prisons are called “correctional facilities.” Most counties have jails, although there are a couple of counties that use other names, such as detention center. New York City, which encompasses several counties, seems to have given its facilities ambiguous names that end in the word “center”:

    I think a lot of people use “jail” for shorter sentences and things like pre-trial detention, but facility names blur meaningful distinctions between jail and prison in the parts of the U.S. where I’ve lived. At one time, perhaps jails were local and prisons were regional, but that generalization doesn’t seem to hold up in practice.

  21. Stephen Hart said,

    June 16, 2020 @ 3:40 pm

    Rachael Churchill said,
    June 15, 2020 @ 11:37 am

    Makes sense. People are using "whence" as a fancy substitute for "where", regardless of context, just like they use "whom" as a fancy substitute for "who", regardless of context.


    There should be a name for trying to use a fancier word for effect, and failing. It's widespread.
    I think it's part of a more general trend of using big words where small one work fine, such as "vehicle" instead of "car" or "truck," and "beverage" instead of "drink" or "pop."

  22. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    June 16, 2020 @ 6:03 pm

    “Incongruous vocabulary” describes using “whence” for “where,” I think. Fowler’s Modern English Usage (I have the second edition) also suggests “Wardour Street” as a term for sprinkling archaic or antique words in a text. I am completely unfamiliar with the street, which makes me disinclined to use the term, but according to Fowler it was once populated by antique furniture dealers.

    Labored substitutions are often referred to in journalism as the “elongated yellow fruit” school of writing. Fowler calls this attempt to replace a repeated word with a substitute word or term “elegant variation.” Bryan Garner renames this “inelegant variation” in Garner’s Modern American Usage (third edition). He says that “elegant” was snark in Fowler’s day, but as elegant has become praiseworthy, inelegant variation is a clearer term.

    “Sesquipedality” is the term Garner uses for substituting big words for smaller, terser words. The term is neutral, and Garner discusses the pros and cons of such vocabulary.

    I see two kinds of failures when sesquipedality comes into play. One is a misfire that results in a malapropism. The other, where the speaker or writer trades up to a longer and possibly more pretentious word, could be covered with the existing term, inelegant variation. The only difference is that the original, basic term wasn’t said out loud or written before the more elaborate substitute appeared.

  23. maidhc said,

    June 16, 2020 @ 7:37 pm

    Robert Coren mentioned Walt Kelly's Pogo, which brought to mind the phrase "Whither away?" (i.e., "Where are you going?") used in that strip.

    I have always admired that, but I have found it difficult to work into a conversation.

    The song is reminiscent of an Australian favourite, Wallaby Stew.

  24. maidhc said,

    June 16, 2020 @ 8:11 pm

    The more I think about it, I bet Walt Kelly was inspired by "Wallaby Stew", although he's added a lot of his own wordplay to it.

    He sent Pogo to Australia for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics and introduced a couple of kangaroos and a wombat as characters, giving him the opportunity to indulge in some pseudo-Australian wordplay. So he must have done some research on Australian folkways.

  25. Bathrobe said,

    June 16, 2020 @ 9:18 pm

    Maitland Gaol closed down in 1998 after 150 years in operation and has now become a tourist attraction.

  26. Alexander Pruss said,

    June 17, 2020 @ 9:47 am

    I wouldn't be confident that using "vehicle" is typically a case of using a longer word when a shorter would do. There are two kinds of cases: (1) the speaker doesn't know whether the vehicle in question is a car, truck or SUV (the last of which has three syllables, compared to two in my (mis?)pronunciation of "vehicle"); (2) the speaker knows. In the case where the vehicle's kind is unknown, a shorter word clearly would not do. And this is a pretty common case (often related to instructions regarding parking). But even when the speaker knows, often the specific kind of vehicle is not relevant, and it's generally better not to include irrelevant information.

    The "beverage" case may be similar. A glass of milk or a mug of beer aren't pop. And while "drink" has a meaning that will cover any beverage, using it in that sense can be distracting because of the secondary "alcoholic beverage" meaning of "drink". So, again, in cases where the speaker doesn't know the kind of beverage in question ("Can I bring you a beverage?"), "beverage" may actually be the best word (though to my ear the longer "Can I bring you something to drink" sounds better). And I think such cases are the most common use cases for "beverage".

    BTW, around here (central Texas), "vehicle" is very commonly used, perhaps because trucks are so common, but "beverage" is rare outside of institutional contexts.

  27. Paul Turpin said,

    June 17, 2020 @ 2:01 pm

    I remember sometimes hearing vehicle pronounced with three syllables in Cork many years ago, maybe it still is.
    In England I think we used gaol, jail, and prison interchangeably…

  28. KevinM said,

    June 17, 2020 @ 8:11 pm

    Bob Dylan, Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues:
    "And if you're looking to get silly/
    You'd better go back to from where you came"

  29. Andrew Usher said,

    June 17, 2020 @ 9:36 pm

    'Vehicle' should be three syllables whether or not you pronounce the /h/ (which is dispreferred); it should not rhyme with 'fecal'. For me the generic term is 'car', at least for vehicles of the size that would normally be used by private individuals, and I would have no hesitation using it for a 'car, truck, or SUV' when the type is unknown, but some might differ.

    'Beverage' does seem like a technical term still more, though, one would not expect it in ordinary conversation. Despite the potential ambiguity, I think 'drink' is generally preferred to 'beverage' when such a term is needed.

    k_over_hbarc at

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