English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Somewhen over the rainbow

Q: I was reading that scene in Tess of the D’Urbervilles where the newlywed Tess suggests to her husband, Angel, that they separate because a rape in her past may “somewhen” come between them. Why did “somewhen” fall out of favor while “somewhere,” “sometime,” and “somehow” survived?

A: You can find the adverb “somewhen” in some contemporary dictionaries, but it’s one of those words that never quite caught on. It’s out there, but you find it mostly in 19th-century literature.

Pat came across it for the first time in another Victorian novel she read two or three years ago. Here’s the passage, from George Meredith’s The Egoist (1879):

“ ‘I’ll debate on it with Willoughby.’ ‘This afternoon?’ ‘Somewhen, before the dinner-bell. I cannot tie myself to the minute-hand of the clock, my dear child.’ ”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “somewhen” as meaning “at some (indefinite or unknown) time; sometime or other.”

Most standard dictionaries don’t have entries for “somewhen,” even those that include such archaic words as “somewise” and “somewhither.” (More about those later.)

There are exceptions, however. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), the big Merriam-Webster Unabridged, and the Collins English Dictionary all have entries for “somewhen.”

The dictionaries define it more or less similarly: “sometime,” “at some time or other,” “at some indefinite or unknown time,” etc.

If people rarely use “somewhen” today, that’s probably because they prefer “sometime,” which means the same thing. When they do produce a “somewhen,” it’s nearly always used semi-humorously or for deliberate effect.

“Somewhen” was first recorded in the late 13th century, according to OED citations. But that early usage (spelled “somwanne”) appears to be an oddity, since the word then dropped out of sight for almost six hundred years.

The word next showed up in the 1800s. And then, as the Oxford editors explain, “somewhen” became a common 19th-century term, usually “coupled with somewhere or somehow.”

The earliest 19th-century example we’ve found in our own searches is from 1827, when the English author Caroline Fry used “somewhen” in a piece of short fiction she wrote for her monthly periodical, The Assistant of Education.

In Fry’s story, the narrator describes travelers in a coach, “engaged in such conversation as takes place between strangers, who have somewhere and somewhen performed the ceremony of introduction.”

The OED’s earliest example in modern English is from a letter written in 1833 by John Stuart Mill: “I shall write out my thoughts more at length somewhere, and somewhen, probably soon.”

The fact that Mill used italics for the “when” indicates that he didn’t consider this an ordinary compound but rather a droll variation on “somewhere.”

This OED citation, from Charles Kingsley’s novel The Water-Babies (1863), also uses “somewhen” alongside similar compounds: “Some folks can’t help hoping … that they may have another chance, to make things fair and even, somewhere, somewhen, somehow.”

And this one, from William Dwight Whitney’s The Life and Growth of Language (1875), does the same: “Spoken somewhere and somewhen in the past.”

In our own searches of various databases, nearly all the examples we found paired “somewhen” with similar words.

William James spun out the longest thread we came across: “somebody, somehow, somewhere, and somewhen” (from his essay “Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results,” 1898).

Only rarely is “somewhen” used alone instead of alongside another “some-” word. The OED has these examples:

“… till somewhen about next Wednesday” (from a letter written in 1876 by Edward A. Freeman); and “ “Somewhen about 50,000 years ago” (from H. G. Wells’s The Outline of History, rev. ed., 1920).

We came up with only a handful of other examples with “somewhen” standing alone, as it does here:

“Somewhen around 1626-33 settlers began to repeople the lower valley” (from an article by Charles Edgar Gilliam in the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 1942).

And this example from a scholarly study by three German doctors appeared in the journal Ophthalmic Research (2011):

“Patients in Cologne who had taken canthaxanthin somewhen between December 1983 and March 1988 were recruited via a newspaper article.”

Otherwise, our contemporary sightings of “somewhen” generally used it in tandem with other “some-” words.

Our findings also consisted largely of usages that were either semi-humorous, deliberately quaint, or used for effect (especially in articles about time travel). Here’s what we mean:

“Of course, I’d bought the plants days before I knew it was Earth Day, but I tend to buy plants then have to find somewhere or somewhen to plant them” (from the Daytona Beach News-Journal, 2005).

“The wormhole time machine makes complete sense. You’d jump through the wormhole and you come out not only somewhere else, but somewhen else” (from the Globe and Mail of Toronto, 2002).

Incidentally, “somewhen” isn’t the only English compound that’s become a rare bird. “Anywhen” (at any time) and “nowhen” (at no time) were once part of the language too.

We can’t sign off without mentioning some of the other antiquities that have vanished from common usage.

“Any” compounds: “anywhat” (any thing or amount); “anywhence” (from anywhere); “anywhither” (to any place); “anywhy” (for any reason); “anywise” (in any way).

“Every” and “ere” compounds: “everyhow” (in every way); “everywhen” (at all times); “everywhence” (from every direction); “everywhither” (in every direction); “erewhile” (some time ago); “erelong” (before long); “ereward” (previously).

“No” compounds: “nowhat” (nothing, or not at all); “nowhence” (from no place); “nowhy” (for no reason); “nowhither” (to no place); “nowise” (in no way).

“Other” compounds: “othersome” (some others); “otherward” (in another direction); “otherwhat” (something else); “otherwhence” (from elsewhere); “otherwhere” (elsewhere); “otherwhither” (to another place); “otherwhile” (at times, or at another time).

“Some” compounds: “somewhence” (from some place); “somewhither” (in some direction, or to some place);  “somewho” (some person); “somewhy” (for some reason); “somewhile” (formerly); “somewise” (in some way).

We’ll end with this example from Robert Browning’s 1864 poem “Mr. Sludge, ‘The Medium’ ”: Out of the drift of facts, whereby you learn / What someone was, somewhere, somewhen, somewhy?”

[Update: A reader in the UK writes on Oct. 3, 2022, to say that even today “somewhen” remains in use as a stand-alone adverb: “It is still in common usage on its own, on the Isle of Wight, England.”]

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