Anthropology, linguistics, archaeology, and writing systems

A hithertofore unrecognized neologism

Posted by schrisomalis on October 6, 2013

I got a note last week from a correspondent asking me about the word hithertofore, and whether or not it was a ‘proper word’.  I have to admit that at first glance I was very surprised, because of course it was a perfectly good word, and one whose meaning I knew well.   But when the correspondent said that she’d looked around and hadn’t found it, I looked at it again and realized that of course it wasn’t a word.  Or was it?

English has two words with a distinctly archaic flavour that mean ‘up to the present time’, hitherto and heretofore.    These synonyms also start with the same letter, are compounds containing to, and to top it all off, hither and here are also synonyms, so it’s not even semantically odd.   Neither word is especially common, and as you can see from this Ngram, hitherto and heretofore are really quite rare and becoming rarer.    It’s hardly surprising, then, that some speakers and readers might blend these two. Whether we think of it as adding -fore to hitherto, or substituting hither for here in heretofore, doesn’t much matter, as the result is the same, hithertofore.

What should perhaps be more surprising is that hithertofore hasn’t hithertofore been included in any dictionary, not even with a usage note.   It’s not hard to find in use in printed books; Google Books claims 67,500 works containing it (although that number is probably inaccurate) in lots of different genres.  There are plenty of words in big unabridged dictionaries that are far less common than that.   I’ve found it going back at least as far as 1708, and I didn’t have to look very hard. While it seems at a glance that a higher than average proportion of these works are authored by non-native English speakers, I also would argue that one has to be relatively fluent to even make such an error, conflating two already-unusual words.

Note, though, that its Ngram, rather than slowly declining from the 19th century until today like those of its two constituents, shows it to be largely a product of the mid-20th century, peaking around 1970.  This suggests, firstly, that perhaps it was at its most popular when its two constituents had declined enough in frequency that they had fallen out of regular use (and were thus prone to confusion), but were still common enough to be intermixed.   It hit its sweet spot half a century ago, but now the two well-accepted words themselves are falling out of use in favour of previously  or other terms, so hithertofore may actually have lost its chance to become another widely used variant (even at its most popular, it was less than 1% as frequent as heretofore).    I still think it’s a neat example of the way that memory, meaning, and phonology can lead to the appearance of nearly-invisible blends, and given that it is a relatively common error, it could probably use some lexicographical attention.



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7 Responses to “A hithertofore unrecognized neologism”

  1. Kevin said

    I still long for the good ol’ days of yet, yet at other times I long for the good ol’ days of still. But I have chronic hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia. Reminds me of an old riddle: What do you call a bunch of legalese chained together at the bottom of the ocean? A good start.

  2. […] hithertofore unrecognised […]

  3. bartiddu said

    Not sure about this, but I have an inclination that ‘hither’ and ‘thither’ are not exact synonyms of ‘here’ and ‘there’ but rather have some implication of motion, as in, “Come hither!” or, “Get thee thither!”
    Is this correct, or am I just making it up, and does anyone care anymore about correct usage of such museum pieces?

    • I grant that ‘hither’ and ‘thither’ are not perfect synonyms of ‘here’ and ‘there’ for the reason you mention – ‘hither’ and ‘thither’ require motion to or from some place (or through metaphorical extension, some time), whereas with ‘here’ and ‘there’ motion is optional. So there are examples where you can’t just replace ‘here’ with ‘hither’: for instance, ‘I’m going to stay hither’ is ungrammatical. However, I can’t think of any instance where you can’t replace ‘hither’ with ‘here’. So the question, I suppose, is whether, in ‘heretofore’ and ‘theretofore’, ‘here’ and ‘there’ are understood as static or as representing motion. And, of course, the fact that we are having this discussion at all suggests that the distinction is largely lost among English speakers (most of whom never use ‘hither’ or ‘thither’ except in idiomatic phrases like ‘come hither’ and ‘hither and thither’.

      • bartiddu said

        Fair comment. I think we should stick up for ‘hither and thither’ as almost their last refuge!
        Like ‘kith and kin’ kin on its own is rare enough these days – but does anyone know what ‘kith’ is anymore? We might hear someone these days saying, “Friends, relatives, loved ones…” but why not, “Kith, kin, loved ones…”?
        Never mind – so it goes – I wonder how long it will be before ‘google’ becomes an archaism!

  4. Kevin said

    Bartiddu, OED confirms, indeedy, the implication of motion, a hithering to this-here place or a thithering to that-there place, so Jingo-by I think you’ve got it.

    Etymologically, hi+der = hither, tha + der = thather > thither. and best (not) to forget yon + der = yonder. But for some strange reason, for me there’s no implication of motion with ‘yonder’ even though its aboutcoming was the same. There is no sense of yondering to yon-there place. And there’s also no attestation of yonderfore, yondertofore, yonderby, &c.

    Poor, poor yonder, that-there inveterate loner. No to, no fore, no by would hook up with him in the good ol’ yore-days. Always a groomsman, never the groom. The most museum-piece-y of the lot.

    • bwaddle said

      In a staff meeting, a younger member mentioned that I had used wander and yonder in the same sentence. I told him that I couldn’t help it, I was from the country. He said, “No, you’re old!” Note: I just got a spell check indication on “yonder.”

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