Etymology Usage

Everwhat and everwhere

Q: My father-in-law is from West Virginia and uses language in a way I hadn’t heard before. He switches around the parts of compound words, so “whoever,” “whatever,” “whichever,” and “wherever” become “everwho,” “everwhat,” “everwhich,” and “everwhere.” He also says “Ain’t this a rotter?” to show surprise or displeasure.

A: The Dictionary of American Regional English describes those four reversed compounds as characteristic of speech in southern Appalachia or the Ozarks.

In DARE’s entry for reversed compounds, it lists two other examples, “everhow” and “everwhen,” but doesn’t link them to specific regions.

The linguist Michael Montgomery has also described this usage as characteristic of southern Appalachian speech.

In a paper, “The Scotch-Irish Element in Appalachian English,” he notes the use of “everwhat,” “everwhich,” and “everwho,” and gives this example: “Everwho was here sure left in a hurry.”

However, Montgomery, a distinguished professor emeritus at the University of South Carolina, says the origin of the usage is unknown. (Some other regional usages cited in his paper are described as Scotch Irish, Southern British, or General British.)

Dialect Notes, Volume IV,  a 1917 publication of the American Dialect Society, includes a report from a contributor, L. R. Dingus, on the usage in southwestern Virginia.

“Compound words sometimes exchange places,” Dingus writes, citing “everwho,”  “everwhat,” “everwhich,” and “everwhere.”

You also mentioned your father-in-law’s use of the expression “Ain’t this a rotter?” to express surprise or displeasure.

The word “rotter” has been around for hundreds of years, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

When it first showed up in the 1500s, the OED says, it meant “something which causes rot, decay, or an otherwise impaired condition in another thing.”

By the 1600s, it was being used figuratively. Here’s an example from Richard Fanshawe’s 1647 translation of Il Pastor Fido, an Italian play by Giambattista Guarini: “Rotter of soul and body, enemie of reason.”

In the 19th century, the OED says, the word came to be used colloquially in this sense: “A person who is morally corrupt; a dishonest, nasty, or worthless person; a scoundrel. Now freq. humorous or somewhat arch.

The dictionary describes this usage as chiefly British and Australian, but perhaps it made its way to Appalachia on the tongues of British immigrants.

However, the OED doesn’t have any example of “rotter” used to express surprise or displeasure. And we can’t find an example in DARE of the word used in this sense. So perhaps it’s just a quirk of your father-in-law.

Check out our books about the English language