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Where Are You At?

The surprising reason people say it.

By
Neal Whitman, read by Mignon Fogarty,
Episode #311

Location: Where

English used to use three separate words for “where” of location, “where” of origin, and “where” of destination. For “where” of location, there was just plain “where.”

Origin: Whence

For “where” of origin, English had “whence,” a single word that has the same meaning as “where from” or “from which.” These days, “whence” is seldom used; in the Corpus of Contemporary American, it has a mere 500 or so hits, compared to the more than 400,000 for “where.”

When people do use “whence,” they often slip into redundancy by using it along with the word “from,” even though the meaning of “from” is already built into “whence.” For example, the phrase “the country from whence we came” is redundant, because it means the same thing as just “the country whence we came.” In more current English, that would be phrased as “the country that we came from,” or “the country from which we came.”

By the way, English also has corresponding forms for “here” and “there” of origin: “hence” and “thence” mean simply “from here” and “from there.”

Destination: Whither

For “where” of destination, English has “whither,” a single word that has the same meaning as “where to,” or “to which.” “Whither” is even rarer these days than “whence”: It gets just shy of 200 hits. Like “whence,” it has a distinctly archaic feel. I can’t imagine a taxi driver asking me “Whither?” Well, I can, but I don’t think it’s going to happen.

When I think of “whither,” I think of the line from the King James translation of the book of Ruth (1:16): “Whither thou goest, I will go.” Check it out: “Whither thou goest” is a single clause made up of three words, and all three of them are words that are hardly used in present-day English. In more-current English, the verse would be, “Where (or wherever) you go, I’ll go.”

You’ve probably guessed by now that the corresponding destination forms of “here” and “there” are “hither” and “thither.” So if you’d like to say, “You can’t get there from here” and sound old-fashioned, you can say, “You can’t get thither hence.”

“Where at” Corresponds to “Where from” and “Where To”

So how does all this connect to the rise of “where at”?

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