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Hither, thither, and everywhither?

The Elizabethans had more options for adverbs of place than we have today; are we missing anything?

Passengers wait on the platform before boarding a train at the U Street Metro Station in Washington on March 12, 2015.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
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  • Ruth Walker

“Whither adverbs of place?” the American Heritage Dictionary (AHD) blog wondered not long ago. 

We seem not to have quite as rich and nuanced a set of adverbial options nowadays as the Elizabethans, for example, did. As the blog reminds us, we have here, there, and where. But each of these is one of a set of verbal triplets, and the records of the other members of this extended family are mixed. To convey the idea of “to this place” as distinct from “in this place,” people used to say “hither” instead of simply “here.” Thither and whither expressed similar distinctions involving “that place” or “which place,” respectively.

Thus: “Come hither,” “Go thither,” and “Whither goest thou?” (Back when these words were common, thou was, too.) 

In the other direction were hence, thence, and whence, for “from this place,” “from that place,” and “from which place,” respectively. And where are they all today? As the AHD blog notes, “[H]ence still sees frequent service as an adverb, though nowadays we use it more to mean “for that reason” rather than “from this place.” 

Thence lives on in the language of surveying, platting, and public records (“running thence along the boundary line between...”). Whence shows up in reference to origins: “Remember from whence you came,” the headline on a CNN commentary admonished Irish-Americans on the eve of this past St. Patrick’s Day. Note, though, the redundant “from” – it’s built into whence.

Hither lives on in the racy-sounding idiom “come-hither look,” which shows that even adverbs have to worry about typecasting. 

Thither seems to have withered; a quick Google News check shows it appearing in historical reprints of 19th-century articles in local newspapers, plus occasional instances of the idiomatic “hither, thither, and yon.” 

Of these underemployed adverbs of place, the one with perhaps the most illustrious post-Elizabethan career is whither, which lives on in what I’ll call the “journalistic whither.”

It’s a shorthand used to ask, What’s up with x, and where (whither?) is it going? It tends to show up in verbless headlines over stories with a subject that is often not quite top of mind. That’s different from a story giving the latest on a subject people are already following.

Thus the recent “Whither the Muslim World’s NATO?” It helps to come to a story like this with some advance knowledge that the Muslim world has a NATO – and that the West has one, too, for that matter.

Thus, “Whither Metro?” on possible changes to Washington’s transit system; “Whither Silver?” on a commodities-news site; even “Whither cashew?” on India’s potential as a nut producer. 

My favorite, though, was over a piece on Westernizing young people in Yerevan, Armenia, opting for nose jobs: “With Rhinoplasty on the Rise, Whither the Armenian Nose?” 

I don’t want to dither further about hither or thither. But whither has found a niche. And the Armenian headline got it on the nose.