August 08, 2007


In this morning's mail:

My wife is unable to answer the following questions (this  despite her having been awarded a Ph.D in linguistics by your esteemed  institution of higher learning); so she suggested I put them to you:

So we're sitting around talking to my mother, a native of Chelsea, MA, and  she produces (roughly) the following utterance (during a discussion of  efforts in her hometown of Lexington, Massachusetts to reduce class size in  local public schools): "Back in my day, public school had classes with thirty  to forty students. Howmsoever, the boys wore suits and ties, and were much better behaved [than today's students]." I was startled by her use of  "howmsoever," which clearly could have been replaced by "however" -- although  I'm fairly certain I've heard her use it before.

I googled "howmsoever" and couldn't come up with a dictionary definition.  Indeed, there appear to be no dictionaries that recognize it. But I did find  something like 111 written uses of the word, spelled as I've spelled it, and  used in nearly all cases in places where "however" could have been used.

The OED has an entry for "howsomever" as, essentially, an archaic version of  "however." So I -- by which I mean, "my wife" -- imagine[s] that via  metathesis this could have become "howmsoever." But why would this process  be occurring today with a word that has largely been out of circulation for a  few hundred years? Where is my mother getting this? She, of course, has no  idea. I don't recall hearing this from any other member of my family,  including my mother's parents. And what about the 111 other folks who are  using it, and spelling it, this way?

I know you have better things to do. But, help us please, we're baffled.

In addition to 116 hits for {howmsoever}, I also get 155 for {howmever}, six for {howemsoever}, three for {how'msoever}, and two for {howmsomever}.

Based on this array of results, I speculate wildly that some people have interpreted the -m- of whomever as a marker of formal style (or of free-choice uncertainty, or whatever), and mapped it by analogy onto however, howsoever, howsomever, etc.

All that I can add to this speculation is a literary precedent, from p. 21-22 of Patrick O'Brian's novel The Truelove (Clarissa Oakes in the UK). Jack Aubrey is inspecting his crew, who are mustered at divisions, when the scene shifts to the sick bay (emphasis added):

On to West -- poor noseless West, a victim of the biting front far south of the Horn -- and his division, the waisters; and as Jack inspected them, so down in the sick-berth one of their number, an elderly seaman named Owen, absent from divisions because of illness, said 'And there I was on Easter Island, gentlemen, with the Proby clawing off the lee shore and me roaring and bawling to my shipmates not to desert me. But they were a hard-hearted set of buggers, and once they had scraped past the headland they put before the wind -- never started a sheet until they crossed the Line, I swear. And did it profit them at all, gentlemen? No, sirs, it did not; for they was all murdered and scalped by Peechokee's people north of Nootka Sound, and their ship was burnt for the iron.'

'How did the Easter Islanders use you?' asked Stephen.

'Oh, pretty well, sir, on the whole; they are not an ill-natured crew, though much given to thieving: and I must admit they ate one another more than was quite right. I am not over-particular, but it makes you uneasy to be passed a man's hand. A slice of what might be anything, I don't say no, when sharp-set; but a hand fair turns your stomach. Howmsoever, we got along well enough. I spoke their language, after a fashion ...'

'How did that come about?' asked Martin.

'Why, sir, it is like the language they speak in Otaheite and other islands, only not so genteel; like the Scotch.'

'You are familiar with the Polynesian, I collect?' asked Stephen.

'Anan, sir?'

'The South Sea language.'

'Bless you, sir, I have been in the Society Islands this many a time; and sailing on the fur-trade so long, to north-west America, when we used to stretch across to the Sandwiches in the winter when the trading was over, I grew quite used to their way of it too. Much the same in New Zealand.'

'Anyone can speak South Seas,' said Philips, the next patient on the starboard side. 'I can speak South Seas. So can Brenton and Scroby and Old Chucks -- anyone that has been in a South Seas whaler.'

O'Brian was linguistically scrupulous, in general (if occasionally prone to invention with respect to culinary obscurities and the details of his own biography), so I think we can take this as evidence that howmsoever is an attested dialect form. I believe that I heard it from time to time where I grew up, in rural Connecticut, though I wouldn't swear to this.

As for how my correspondent's mother came by this form, given the hypothesis that her parents didn't use it, there are several possibilities: she might have gotten it from her peers, or from a babysitter; or she might have re-invented it on her own. Unless she is prone to picking up dialect forms later in life from reading, we can absolve Patrick O'Brian, since The Truelove/Clarissa Oakes was not published until 1992.

[Update -- Aidan Kehoe suggests another etymology:

Looks like a reanalysis of 'how and soever' to me, but then I grew up with Irish English (where, with the exception of one Scot, all the Google results for that come from), and so the reanalysis may have been a historical one from a pre-existing 'howmsoever.'


[Update #2 -- Alaina Sloo writes:

I was curious, so I checked Dictionary of American Regional English. No howmsoever, but it lists both howsoever archaic and howsomever, and says that howsoever is archaic but howsomever (also howsomebeever, howsom(e)dever, howsum(dever)) is in current usage, "scattered, but chiefly S and C Atl, S Midl." The definition includes examples from 1795 through 1984.


[Update #3 -- Josh Millard writes:

I didn't expect to find much, and got what I expected: a single google hit for 'wheremsoever'.

'The content problem will be *much* harder to solve. Find the best HTML page person you have available (from a pretty pages *and* a usability standpoint), let them re-make your home page (which I *hope* lives at, wheremsoever else it might live, too), and then let the other departments "discover" how much prettier looking it is, and say "hey; can we borrow her?" :-)'

Doesn't look like a coy language joke, and it's a pretty implausible miskey (in QWERTY at least).


Mm, yes. If Language Log had a merchandising department, it would now commission a bumper sticker reading "Another family for free-choice -m-".]

Posted by Mark Liberman at August 8, 2007 08:13 AM