The Grammarphobia Blog

Farewell, My Lovely

Q: In your post about “goodbye,” you say it doesn’t mean leaving someone for good. How about “farewell”? My impression is that it might be suitable for “goodbye forever.”

A: This was our impression, too—that “farewell” implied a more or less permanent “goodbye.” But the Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t say that in so many words.

“Farewell” is a one-word version of the phrase “fare well,” in which to “fare” means to travel or make one’s way.

The word was first recorded in William Langland’s Piers Plowman (1377). And the OED defines it simply as “an expression of good wishes at the parting of friends, originally addressed to the one setting forth, but in later use a mere formula of civility at parting.”

Nevertheless, we detect a sense of permanence when “farewell” is used as an attributive noun (that is, adjectivally) in phrases like “farewell address,” “farewell dinner,” “farewell gift,” “farewell letter,” and “farewell speech.”

The OED describes “farewell” as synonymous with “Goodbye!” or “Adieu!” But it adds that today “farewell” is used poetically or rhetorically, “chiefly implying regretful feeling.”

The “regretful” part may be the key here. Certainly there’s an element of sadness in “farewell” that isn’t present in “goodbye.”

Perhaps that’s because “farewell” conveys the idea that the parting is a long one, as if a friend were “setting forth” (as the OED says) on a journey. This could be why we associate “farewell” with more long-lasting partings.

On a less poignant note, we wrote a blog item a couple of years back on why “so long” means goodbye.

Finally, all this talk about “farewell” makes us think of two Raymond Chandler novels, Farewell, My Lovely and The Long Goodbye. He wrote The Long Goodbye while his wife, Cissy, was dying.

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