The Grammarphobia Blog

Whither or not?

Q: I often see “whither” in titles, perhaps too often, and it doesn’t always make sense to me. My understanding is that “whither” means wherever, but how do you explain it in, say, Monty Python’s “Whither Canada” episode?

A: I imagine that John Cleese and the other Monty Python writers were just having some withering fun. I too have had my fill of “whithers”: “Whither Imus?” “Whither the Dollar?” “Whither Socialism?” “Whither Newspapers?” Lazy editors use it a lot in headlines to mean “Where Goes X?” or “Where Has Y Gone?”

“Whither” is an extremely old word, dating back to the 800s. It means to what place, situation, position, degree, or end, according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.). In other words, “whither” essentially means where or wherever.

The two most famous uses of “whither” are in the Bible: “Whither goest thou?” (the Vulgate translation of Quo vadis?) and “Whither though goest, I will go” (the Book of Ruth).

Today, “whither” has the flavor of antiquity and is rarely used except by those who like its quaintness. In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary notes that in modern times, “whither” has been replaced by “where.”

We see “whither” almost exclusively these days in newspaper or magazine headlines in which the verb is either understood or dropped: “Whither the Middle East?” (Where Goes the Middle East?); “Whither the Moderates?” (Where Have the Moderates Gone?), and so on. And on and on!

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