There’s no “there” thence.

Dear Word Detective: For years, I have felt smugly superior to writers who say “from whence” or “from hence” (so, err, I hope you never have), because I’ve been under the impression that “whence” and “hence” by themselves mean “from where” and “from here,” respectively. That’s why “Get thee hence!” seems perfectly grammatical to my ear, though also over-the-top 19th-century Gothic. It struck me just now that I have no hard evidence for this belief. Have I been wrong all this time, or can I go back to being smug? — Alan Clark.

Good heavens, sire, thou art laboring under a most unfortunate misapprehension; to wit, that smugness or excessive self-esteem in one’s manner regarding grammar and usage has any necessary connection to linguistic virtue. Nay, the two are frequently opposites, and even a cursory survey of commercial literature devoted to correctness in speech and writing will often reveal a multitude of witless errors, masquerading as inviolate principles, pronounced with absolute Biblical certainty. Proceeding apace to the bottom line and cutting thenceforth to the chase, most of the iron laws of language are no more eternal (or natural) than a pile of Cheez Whiz in the path of a hungry dog. So don’t sweat it. Personally, I take great pride in peppering my speech with “they” and “their” used as singular epicene pronouns. Drives the foamers nuts.

By the way, you missed a spot. In addition to “whence” (meaning “from where”) and  “hence” (“from here,” “from this time” or “for this reason”), we also have “thence,” which means basically “from there” (“I’m going to the Quickee-Mart and thence to Pizza World. Can I get you anything?”).

“Whence,” “hence” and “thence” are all very old words, from ancient Germanic roots, first appearing in Old English. The Indo-European root of “whence,” incidentally, was the interrogatory stem “qwo,” which is also connected to “when,” “who,” “where,” “which,” “why” and “how.”

“Whence,” “hence” and “thence” strike modern ears as a bit odd because they each contain a sort of built-in preposition, in most cases “from.” But they also all denote a particular point (“where,” “here” or “there”) away from which action flows in some form, which is a prescription for most modern English-speakers to dust off “from” and deploy it. This leads to all sorts of fun, most notably in the ruckus over “whence.” Since “whence” in itself means “from where,” saying “from whence” is considered, by many people, to be redundant, equivalent to saying “from from where.” On the other hand, the average modern reader or listener is far more likely to accept “from whence” without a problem, and far more likely to stumble over a simple, unadorned “whence,” which can seem a bit jarring, even to the cognoscenti (“His first stop will be Morocco, followed by Senegal, whence he will embark across the Atlantic Ocean,” Newscom.au, 1/12). Most readers would pause a moment at that naked “whence,” and most writers wisely avoid erecting such tiny hurdles in their narrative stream.

Consequently, “from whence” is far from rare today, has actually been commonly used since the 13th century, and was very popular in the 16th and 17th centuries. It has been used, indeed, by some very famous writers (“Let him walke from whence he came,” Shakespeare, Comedy of Errors, 1616; “From whence have we derived that spiritual profit?”, Dickens, Bleak House, 1853). “From hence” and “from thence” have been similarly popular over the centuries.

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