Monday, 12 April 2021

Hither, Thither and Whither; Hence, Thence and Whence

 Quo Vadis

Hither and Thither sat on a fence
Hither said, "We're here," but Thither went thence.
Along came Whither, he knew not whence,
For truth to tell, he was rather dense.
In a bit of a dither, he called to Thither,
"Go not hence, but please come hither."

In a recent article in the Globe and Mail, Gary Mason muses on the future of the mayor of Calgary, Naheed Nenshi:

He could go back to academia, from whence he came. 

Probably without realizing it, he is echoing the wonderful line from Psalm 121:

I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills
From whence cometh my help.

I often think of the verse on a walk when I face the mountains ahead, although my help usually cometh from the valley below in the form of an ice-cold beer at the end of the day.

I have always enjoyed this family of almost archaic words, which survive only in a few expressions such as a “come-hither glance” or “get thee hence” or “whither goest thou”, and, of course, in the text of “the noblest monument of English prose”, the King James Bible.

“Hence” means “from here”; “thence”, “from there”; and whence, “from where”; and similarly, “hither”, “thither” and “whither” mean to “here”, there” and “where”. The psalm contains a redundancy: the “from” is unnecessary for "whence" means "from where", but who would delete it? The contemporaries of Shakespeare who translated the Authorized Version felt the rhythm of the language, and the preposition remains to this day.

The piece of doggerel above came to me on a walk, as I thought about a medieval city in Spain where the little narrow streets wander hither and thither, so that it’s  almost impossible not to get lost. In a medieval town, you can not simply walk around the block and get back to where you started. It is not easy to go thence and return thither. For the streets were not designed by a town planner, but grew up along ancient paths traced by people who did not walk in straight lines. 


To end on a sad note. Unfortunately, in the sentence before the one with the Biblical echo, Gary Mason commits what may be the most common error of all, and one that appears too often in the Globe and Mail:

Mr. Nenshi is non-committal about what lays ahead for him.

See also Laid and Lain and Lie and Lay.  

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