Skip to main content

Hello. It looks like you’re using an ad blocker that may prevent our website from working properly. To receive the best experience possible, please make sure any blockers are switched off and refresh the page.

If you have any questions or need help you can email us

How words disappear, or go into hiding

George Borrow,1803-1881. English writer and traveller. From the painting by John Borrow (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images) - Credit: Getty Images

PETER TRUDGILL on how some ‘antiquated’ words drop out of use

In George Borrow’s 1843 book The Bible in Spain, he reports one of his interlocutors, a servant, as saying to him: ‘Though I have been turned out of so many families, I was never turned out of that one; and though I left it thrice, it was of my own free will.’

Most readers of this column will be familiar with the word thrice. It occurs, for instance, in the King James Bible: ‘Before the cock crow twice, thou shalt deny me thrice.’ At earlier periods of history, all English speakers would have used this word quite naturally as part of their normal everyday speech.

Nowadays, on the other hand, it is safe to say that most of us never use it. As early as 200 years ago, it had already become somewhat archaic. The most recent citation of the word in the Oxford English Dictionary comes from as long ago as 1859, from the decidedly uncolloquial verse of Alfred Lord Tennyson, whose Idylls of a King contains the line ‘…with some surprise and thrice as much disdain’. George Borrow, too, wrote in what has been called a ‘pre-Victorian’ style.

What we would say in modern English instead of thrice, of course, is three times. This change from thrice to three times appears to be part of a pattern.

The forms whence and thence have similarly for the most part disappeared from the language, and been replaced by from where and from there: we no longer ask ‘Whence have you come?’ but ‘Where have you come from?’. Similarly, whither, hither and thither have been replaced by to where, to here and to there. ‘Whither walkest thou?’ is now expressed as ‘Where are you walking to?’

Linguistic analysts would say that what is happening here is that synthetic structures are being replaced by analytic structures.

To get an angle on what this means, we can consider the fact that the word seldom and the two-word phrase not often mean more or less exactly the same thing. ‘I seldom go’ and ‘I don’t often go’ are no different from one another in terms of meaning in any significant way. The negative element of the meaning, and the frequency element of the meaning, are synthesised into the single word seldom while, in not often the two elements have been analysed out and expressed separately.

The same thing is true of neither and not either, as in ‘I like neither of them’ and ‘I do not like either of them’.

Again, the two different elements of meaning are combined in the single form of neither but are separated out in not either.

For many speakers of modern English, the analytical two-word forms feel more natural, and certainly less formal, than their synthetic equivalents.

If I am right, seldom is now employed less often – or more seldom! – than not often. And most people are probably more likely to say ‘I don’t like either of them’ rather than ‘I like neither of them’.

This is part of a very long-running trend in the evolution of the English language in which more analytical structures are winning out over synthetic forms.

And the process continues: plenty of younger people nowadays seem to be quite happy to say two times rather than twice.

To older people this can sound rather childish, but doubtless our own usage of three times would have sounded childish to older speakers in the 18th century when thrice was beginning to fall out of use. It would be interesting to see how long it takes before the surviving form once turns into the equivalent of French une fois or Norwegian en gang, literally ‘one time’.

Possessive pronouns like mine, yours and ours also appear to be under threat today from potential analytical replacements: younger people are increasingly saying ‘That’s my one!’ rather than ‘That’s mine!’. This is my impression anyway – maybe your one is different.