The Grammarphobia Blog

Is ‘hithertofore’ legit?

Q: Is “hithertofore” a traditional English word, a neologism, or what? I need to know because I have used it in my new book and the editor has queried it.

A: As far as we can tell, “hithertofore” has never been recognized as a standard English word, though we’ve found a few hundred written examples (dating back to the early 1700s) in searches of digitized books, newspapers, and magazines.

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, doesn’t have an entry for “hithertofore,” and neither do standard dictionaries, which focus on the modern meanings of words. We’ve checked Merriam-Webster Unabridged and eight other standard dictionaries.

The earliest written example we’ve found for “hithertofore” is from “An Act Concerning Patents and Grants,” a statute approved by the legislature of the Province of Pennsylvania on Oct. 15, 1711, in Philadelphia.

The colonial statute says no property title “shall be adjudged, or taken to be defective … for want of being hithertofore sealed with the Great Seal.”

And here’s a more recent example from an article about the troubled Apollo 13 space mission in the April 24, 1970, issue of the Catholic Transcript:

“The first post-flight comments by NASA officials and the photographs of the damaged service module have already brought home several hithertofore unsuspected perils of the space saga.”

We wouldn’t describe “hithertofore” as a neologism (a newly coined word or expression). We suspect that the writers who’ve used it were simply conflating two long-established terms, “hitherto” and “heretofore,” which both mean “up to this time.”

The earliest example for “hitherto” in the OED is from a medieval manuscript, dated sometime before 1225, about the life of St. Katherine of Alexandria: “Hwucche men þu hauest ihaued hiderto to meistres” (“Which men you have had hitherto as masters”).

The dictionary’s first example for “heretofore” is from William of Palerne, an English translation done sometime before 1375 of a French poem, Guillaume de Palerme (circa 1200):

“For here-to-fore of hardnesse hadestow neuer” (“She had never been used to such hardness heretofore”).

Finally, we wrote a post in 2012 about “heretofore” and other compounds made from two or three smaller words.

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