I’d been meaning for quite some time to write an “Editor Pontificates” post on a couple of phrases that are bugging me when people use them incorrectly. They’re the kind of thing that make me want to pull out my big rubber stamp and slap on a fat, juicy WRONG! But then, I had to change my mind on both of those matters. Well, okay, maybe didn’t have to, but I did anyway.
The phrases in question are “from whence” and “begging the question”.
“Begging the question” is actually a specific term that comes from formal logical debate. In that context, it means “a circular argument”: if something begs the question, it’s stating as a fact the very question that started the discussion in the first place. The way the phrase is misused is that people use it as a synonym for “bringing up the question”: “My socks got wet wading through the snow, which begs the question why I didn’t wear boots today.” That’s wrong – or is it?
“From whence”, on the other hand, is a case of messed up archaic language. It’s rarely used nowadays in ordinary speech, which is why people (those pesky people) aren’t familiar enough with it to use it properly. “From whence” is a redundancy (as is its partner, “from hence”): “Whence” means “from where” (and hence “from here”). So, “from whence” really means “from from where”. WRONG!
So what made me change my mind on the big fat rubber stamp? It’s two different issues.
In the case of “begging the question”, the point is that language is not static. Yes, the phrase properly has a very specific use and meaning – formal debate, logical fallacy, blah blah. But this isn’t the Middle Ages, and we’re not engaged in university debates where we decimate our opponents by shouting out, preferably in Latin, the labels of the logic mistakes they made – “Ad hominem!”, “Strawman!”, “Begging the question!” No, this is the 21st century. Meanings of words and phrases change; language is democratic. And so, in informal talk today, “it begs the question” means “it brings up the question”. I heard an extremely erudite and eloquent friend of mine use it that way the other day, and as he can talk rings around everyone else where vocabulary and phrasing are concerned, it clinched the matter for me. I still wouldn’t recommend using the new meaning in an academic paper, but my bet is that before long it’ll become an accepted dictionary definition of the phrase.
“From whence” fell on the opposite end of the scale. “Whence” is an old word, and I thought people just didn’t know any more what it meant. But then, I was re-reading Sense and Sensibility. And there it was, jumping out at me: “He earnestly pressed her … to come with her daughters to Barton Park …, from whence she might judge, herself, whether Barton Cottage … could … be made comfortable to her.” Well, stay me with flagons. Austen says “from whence”?!? And she does it not just once, which might be considered a fluke, but five times in S&S alone! Well, then. Who am I to complain? Furthermore, a quick Google search turns up the fact that even Shakespeare used it, in Sonnet 48: “…the gentle closure of my breast / From whence at pleasure thou mayst come and part“. Austen and Shakespeare – all that’s left is for me to be glad I didn’t pontificate about “from whence” before, or I’d be wiping egg off my face now.
So there you have it: Life, the Universe, and an Editor’s Changed Mind. Which begs the question, From whence do people get their language?