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shameless pleading

Nevertheless

Mindtwisters.

Dear Word Detective: What’s the deal with “nonetheless” or “nevertheless”? We all know what they mean, but when you reflect on the separate words, “none the less,” it makes no sense whatsoever (another weird, perhaps related, contraction). — Lee Hixson.

That’s a good question. But it’s also a bad question (Bad question! Bad!), because it gives me a headache when I think about it for more than a minute or two. There’s something about this whole class of jammed-up words that seems slippery and difficult to think about methodically. I vividly remember a friend of mine asking me, and this was at least fifteen years ago, to explain what in the world the word “notwithstanding” really meant (and why anyone had decided it meant that). That question ruined my whole day.

“Nonetheless,” “nevertheless” and “notwithstanding” are all English adverbs of considerable age. “Nevertheless” and “notwithstanding” first appeared in print in the late 14th century, and “nonetheless” in the early 16th century. These three are actually the survivors of an entire passel of words and phrases with the same general meaning in use at at various times but now obsolete, including “natheless,” “nautheless,” “naught the less,” “noughtwithstanding” and “notagainstanding” (“gainstand” being an archaic word meaning “to resist or oppose”).

All of these words mean roughly the same thing: “despite that,” “in spite of that” or “all the same.” The constituent parts of each word (“not,” “never,” “the,” “more,” “less,” etc.) are not a mystery; “withstand” is our familiar English word meaning “to resist or oppose, usually successfully” (“You have not the will to withstand your aunt,” 1882). But the sense of these words can be hard to explain precisely because they have acquired an idiomatic meaning over the years a bit different from the simple sum of their parts.

The key to “nonetheless,” “nevertheless” and “notwithstanding” is that they all require and refer to an antecedent statement, which may or may not be referred to elsewhere in the sentence. “Nonetheless” “notwithstanding” and “nevertheless” mean that what has been said or known (call it “X”) does not prevent, diminish or invalidate, etc., the fact that the primary statement “Y” is true, valid, etc. (“Limo services Los Angeles have been in demand for years. Nonetheless, their business is fairly limited…,” 10/01/11). The first statement makes the second “none the less” (or “never the less”) true.

“Notwithstanding” is a bit odd in that it means that the primary assertion does, in fact, “withstand” the other statement or condition (“Notwithstanding his previous convictions for fraud, Bob was given a license to practice law”). The thing to remember is that no matter how strange these words may seem, they’re all ultimately just synonyms for “despite” or “in spite of.”

“Whatsoever” is another weird word, but it’s a bit easier to explain. “Whatsoever” is simply a more ornate and emphatic form of “whatever,” meaning (as a pronoun) “anything at all” (“In a few months we shall have stores of whatever we want,” 1832) or (as an adjective) “any” (“The Governor-General has been stripped of whatever little authority he retained,” 1887). Given the current dominance of “whatever” as a catch-all response indicating a pose of insolent apathy (“He said I was fired and I’m like ‘Whatever’”), I’m a bit surprised that we haven’t seen the emergence of “Whatsoever” for those times when you truly, madly, deeply don’t give a hoot.

6 comments to Nevertheless

  • Monroe Thomas Clewis

    Just a quick note to congratulate you on survining an ordeal which must have been much like a torpedo attack. I’m delighted you were not “sunk.” Was it a virus, malware? Anyway, keep plowing through the lexical seas. Bon voyage!

  • O nihilominus!

    In the same vein, “albeit” is a favorite of mine.

  • Anders Lotsson

    Nonetheless has a word-for-word equivalent (almost) in Swedish, icke desto mindre. But notwithstanding is a hard one.

  • Have you considered adding some videos to the article? I think it might enhance viewers understanding.

  • Antonio

    In italian we have “nondimeno”, that comes from the tree words non (negative adverb) di (of) meno (minus, less) with the same meaning of nevertheless. Also, we use “nonostante” from non and the present participle of the verb “ostare” (probably related to “ostacolo”: obstacle), that means to oppose. Ostare is rarely used alone in everyday language, but some forms still appear in bureaucratic expressions as in “nulla osta” (nothing opposes, e.g., when you ask for a permit and the authority says that they don’t have reason to refuse.

  • sunbelt57

    LOL “…a catch-all response indicating a pose of insolent apathy”

    another one from the teenage vernacular but not as widespread is: “as-if” a response to someone implying something.

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