English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

English via Facebook

Q: Does Facebook use “via” incorrectly when your friend A forwards a link to you from his friend B? Facebook describes this as “From A via B,” but surely it should be the other way around, “From B via A.”

A: You’re right—“via” has meant “by way of” since it came into English in the 1700s.  A newer sense of the word, “by means of” or “with the aid of,” came into use in the 1930s and is also accepted as standard English in modern dictionaries.

So Facebook has things turned around. In fact, the message is coming from friend B (the original source) by way of (or “via”) friend A, the intermediary who forwards it.

These two examples from Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) illustrate the standard uses of “via”:

  • by way of: “She flew to Los Angeles via Chicago.”
  • by means of: “I’ll let her know via one of our friends.”

The English preposition “via” was taken directly from the Latin noun via, meaning “way” or “road.”

Despite its classical origins, the English word is relatively new as these things go, since it dates back only to the 18th century. This is why it’s sometimes printed in italics in older writing.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation is from a letter written by James Lovell, a delegate to the Continental Congress, to John Adams on June 13, 1779:

“This night is the fourteenth since we first had the news of his victory, via New Providence.” (The reference is to Gen. Benjamin Lincoln in a battle against the British.)

Here’s another example that clearly displays the original usage: “Lord Weybridge … is on his way to London viâ Paris.” (From Theodore Edward Hook’s novel The Parson’s Daughter, 1833.)

The newer sense of the word (“by means of”) is nicely illustrated by this 1977 citation from the OED:

“It would in theory be possible to provide five more services with national coverage via satellite.” (From a British government report on the future of broadcasting.)

But no matter which usage you subscribe to—and current dictionaries accept both—“via” always refers to whoever or whatever is in between, not to the origin.

Think of the word “viaduct,” a long high bridge that’s an elevated go-between.

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