Back away slowly, no sudden movements.
Dear Word Detective: My mom (age 91) froths at the mouth any time she hears someone use the word “further” where she thinks they should be using “farther.” Is this really a cardinal sin of grammar? I know that Dickens (my favorite go-to author when I’ve nothing else to read) uses “further” to mean “more distance/distant,” which seems a good enough authority for me, but it isn’t for her. Please further our knowledge by looking farther into this. — Lynne Foringer.
Oh heck, why not? We all have our little fits of self-destructive risk-taking. Some of us sky-dive, some of us patronize all-you-can-eat buffets, and some of us join Facebook and leave all the security settings at “Recommended.” And, about once a year, I tackle a usage question, although I ordinarily regard such expeditions with the same enthusiasm I feel about trimming my fingernails in a wood-chipper. Yet it’s hard to pass up the opportunity to heal family discord (a task for which I get to bill by the hour), so here goes.
I wish I could say that this question is just a random quirk or prejudice on your mother’s part, but the debate over “further” versus “farther” has been raging (or at least simmering) since the beginning of the 20th century. The first thing to note is that “further” and “farther” are actually the same word, two forms separated by spelling, a bit of time, and not much else. “Further” appeared in Old English as a comparative form of the word that became our modern English “forth.” “Farther” developed as a spelling variant of “further” in Middle English because people assumed that it was connected somehow to “far,” which it wasn’t. Neither “further” nor “farther” actually has any etymological connection to “far.”
For most of their history, “further” and “farther” were used interchangeably, as they still are by many people. Usage mavens abhor a vacuum, however, and in the early 20th century pronouncements began to appear, identifying a hitherto unknown distinction between the words and decreeing their proper usage. “Father” should be used, went the line, in cases where literal physical distance is involved (“The gas station is farther away than the school”), while “further” should be employed to denote extent or degree (“Further argument was useless”). The logic of this distinction is obscure, but it appears to have been based on viewing “farther” as a literal comparative form of “far” (to which, as we’ve seen, it has no actual connection) and “further” as a sort of dreamy, loosey-goosey figurative derivative of “farther.”
The “rule” about when to use “farther” versus “further” thus never made much sense, but it did make a notable difference in real-world usage of the words when pounded into millions of tiny noggins in elementary schools. Many folks are walking around today firmly convinced that a violation of this edict is one of the lesser signs of the apocalypse. But adherence to the edict is fading in actual usage.
Back in 1926, H.W. Fowler, in his landmark Modern English Usage, ventured that “further” would eventually completely squeeze out “farther” in popular usage. This seems to be happening, with “further” now being commonly employed even in contexts where literal physical distance is clearly meant (“About 5 miles further, on the port side is Captiva Pass,” News-Press (Fla.) 11/7/10), although “farther” is still preferred by purists. As a sentence adverb, “further” rules the roost (“Further, I find your impertinence offensive”) and “farther” in this role would strike many people as simply wrong. “Further” is also the standard in adjectival uses to mean “additional” (“The spokesman declined further comment but said more information would be forthcoming,” Baltimore Sun).
The bottom line on “further” versus “farther” is that there is no real, logical distinction between the words in usage. There are, however, a lot of perfectly sane, intelligent people out there who believe there is a distinction to be made, and that it matters. The only practical solution for the rest of us is to speak carefully in the presence of such people, to endure their rants and frothing when they detect a violation, and simply not to worry about it the rest of the time. To invoke my favorite philosopher, Pogo, “Don’t take life so serious; it ain’t nohow permanent.”
Semper Ubi Sub Ubi
Alright, already, a little late. I’ll explain in a moment.
Hey, TWD has 863 “likes” on Facebook. Awesome. I hope we hit 1,000 before the whole Zuckerbergian shebang goes belly-up. I read a news story last week that said FB is ludicrously over-valued and early investors are trying to unload their shares (I believe the actual phrase they used was “claw their way out”) before reality sets in and the bubble bursts.
Waiting for the other shoe to drop in Cybertopia has been a kind of hobby of mine for years. Way back when (mid-90s) I thought Cliff Stoll was right on the money in branding the whole net-evangelist circus (Negroponte, et al.) as “Silicon Snake Oil,” and Nicholas Carr and Evgeny Morozov are both worth reading on the subject of the internet and society, especially claims made recently that Twitter and Facebook will be the magical agents of a global wave of freedom.
Which is not to say that the internet doesn’t have its good points. A few years ago I suggested that people check out Arts & Letters Daily for pointers to interesting long-form articles. ALD is still going strong (though listing a bit to starboard much of the time), but I’m happy to report that several other sites have since appeared that also point to worthwhile things to read on the net. Best of the breed at the moment is probably The Browser, closely followed by Longreads and the aptly-titled Give Me Something To Read. There’s usually a bit of overlap between the sites at any given moment, but checking them all once a day certainly beats hanging out on Fark (Woman Survives Tornado by Hiding in Tanning Bed!) or, God forbid, the Huffington Train Wreck.
By the way, I changed the layout of this page from 90% fluid to 1000 px wide so that the columns would end closer to where they should. Let me know if this is screwing up anything at your end. Any screen resolution 1024 x 768 or higher shouldn’t have a problem. You people on iPads should just suck it up and tilt your heads or something.
We interrupt this digression for an important announcement: The Word Detective website depends on your support to pay the bills. If you find this little circus helpful, interesting, amusing and/or worthwhile, please subscribe or contribute to our survival. Fifteen bucks per year is only four pennies a day, but it makes a huge difference at this end. It’s like magic. Here’s your chance to be a magician.
Onward. Um, has anyone noticed that there seems to be something pretty seriously wrong with the weather? We’ve been spared the horrible destruction in the South, but it’s been raining more or less non-stop for two weeks, often violently, and we’ve had two tornadoes hit within a mile of us in the past month (both following precisely the same path, which is very weird).
I suppose I should explain why this issue of TWD is so late. So I’m sitting on the living room couch a couple of weeks ago, and I notice that Boots the Cat is staring at the ceiling. This is not unusual, because Boots is obsessed with ceilings in general, and this ceiling in particular due to the honking huge ugly ceiling fan the previous owner of this pile installed. We’ve always meant to take it down, but that would leave a big hole in the ceiling and would also require me to climb up there, which, as will become apparent in a moment, would be a very bad idea. Anyway, I glance up and notice that Mister Boots is actually staring at a huge, nasty-looking spider crawling across the ceiling and due to arrive above my head in about 30 seconds.
Continue reading this post » » »
I love you all. Now get off my lawn.
Dear Word Detective: I noted that you used “cantankerous” in the description of another word, but there wasn’t a entry for “cantankerous” on your website. Can you elaborate? — Monica.
Hey, you’re right. Apart from that one use in a column about the word “ornery,” I haven’t used “cantankerous” (much less explained it) a single time in all these years. I guess when you have a sunny disposition like mine, the glass is always at least half-full of delicious sody-pop and, gosh darn it, you just don’t have time for all those frowny old words like “cantankerous.” Strangely enough, there are people who expect me to be a bit of a cranky, cantankerous curmudgeon myself when they meet me (especially if they’ve met me before), but the truth is that I greet each day with a feeling of soaring euphoria so intense that I can barely restrain myself from breaking into song. I kid you not. I gotta remember to get this prescription refilled. Now who’s ready for pie?
Meanwhile, back at your question, “cantankerous” is a word so perfectly suited in form to its meaning of “argumentative, ill-tempered, cranky” that you might well guess what it meant just from the sound of the word. Even the Oxford English Dictionary, not known for musing aloud in print, notes the “oddly appropriate sound” of “cantankerous.” The only other possible meaning that the sound of the word evokes for me would be an unpleasant skin disease, and that’s probably because it reminds me of “canker.”
“Cantankerous” first appeared in print in English, as far as we know, in Oliver Goldsmith’s 1772 comedic play She Stoops to Conquer (“There’s not a more bitter cantanckerous road in all christendom”). It’s worth noting that “cantankerous,” unlike many words, has never varied in meaning since its first appearance. It still just means “cranky and difficult” and it’s still in wide use today (“But rather than crack a smile, [Barney] Frank began a harangue that was cantankerous even by his standards, sniping at everything from the Tea Party to the Boston Herald,” Boston Globe, 11/03/10).
The origins of “cantankerous” are, fittingly for a word that means “uncooperative,” uncertain, although we do have a general sense of its lineage. The most likely source is the Middle English “”conteke,” which meant “contention, quarrelling,” from which came “contekour,” a person who argues, and finally something like “contackerous” meaning the quality of being a real pill. The final form of “cantankerous” may have been influenced by the spelling of words such as “traitorous” and “rancorous.”
It’s also possible that “cantankerous” is related to the Irish “cannran,” meaning “strife or grumbling.” Or that it is based on the Old French “contechier,” meaning, loosely, “firmly held,” which certainly fits with the idea of stubbornness. If this Anglo-French connection is true, the ultimate root of “cantankerous” may be the Latin “contactus,” past participle of “contingere,” meaning “to touch” and also the source of our English “contact.”
That may sound like a rather large cloud of possibilities that doesn’t get us very far in our quest for the origin of “cantankerous,” but its possible that all of those theories are true and just represent various bits of a very winding path taken by the word.