Q: Pat says in Woe Is I that “via” means “by way of,” not “by means of,” but I often see it used in the latter sense. Is this an example of the language changing?
A: We had a blog item about “via” a few years ago, but English does indeed change and it’s probably time for an update.
In fact, Pat will be revising the entry on “via” in the third edition of Woe Is I when the paperback comes out this summer.
The traditional meaning of the preposition “via” is “by way of,” but dictionaries now accept “by means of” in the sense of “through the medium of” or “by the agency of.”
That’s why we can correctly say something was sent “via fax” or “via FedEx” – that is, through the medium of fax transmission or by the agency of Federal Express.
At the root of these meanings is the Latin word via, which means “road.” (In English, the first syllable can rhyme with either “why” or “we.”)
When “via” entered English in the late 18th century, according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, it meant “by way of; by a route passing through.”
During the 19th and early 20th centuries, “via” was used in this limited travel sense. Merriam-Webster’s gives the following example: “We traveled from Boston to Philadelphia via New York City.”
In the 1920s and ’30s, according to the usage guide, the preposition “began to take on extended meanings” and refer to “the means of travel rather than the route taken.”
For example, “We traveled from St. Louis to Chicago via rail” or “The trip would have taken half the time via air.”
Around the same time, “via” began being used to mean “through the medium of” or “by the agency of” in contexts that had nothing to do with travel.
Examples: “She spoke to her mother via telephone” and “The message was sent via telegraph.”
These new usages caught on quickly, according to Merriam-Webster’s, despite criticism from language authorities who were aware of the word’s Latin roots.
“If you use via in any but the original sense,” M-W says, “you still run the risk of ruffling a few feathers, but you will be in good company.”
The usage guide goes on to cite published examples of the looser usage from the works of E. B. White, John Updike, and Norman Mailer.
We’re comfortable using “via” in all the senses mentioned above. For now, though, we wouldn’t extend its use beyond those. But English is a living language, and other senses of the word may one day become acceptable.