Q: I know one can say “furthermore” but not “farthermore” (at least not in the UK). Is this in any way indicative? And if so, of what?
A: The word “farthermore” once existed, but it became obsolete several centuries ago and is no longer found in any variety of English. This is indicative of the fact that it wasn’t of much use.
The old word cropped up in the 1380s as a variant of the earlier “furthermore,” an adverb first recorded around 1200. During its brief history, “farthermore” was used in all the senses of “furthermore” then current, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.
So for a couple of hundred years, the adverb “farthermore” had these meanings (to cite the OED definitions): 1. “to a more advanced point of progress”; 2. “to a greater extent”; 3. “moreover.”
This was a time—the 14th to 16th centuries—when “further” and “farther” themselves were in flux, and consequently so were “furthermore” and “farthermore.” In the end, “farthermore,” which served no useful purpose, died out in the 1500s, and those three senses were taken over by other words.
Today, we use the simpler adverbs “further” or “farther” for sense #1 above (whether the distance covered is literal or figurative). For sense #2, expressing a greater extent or degree, we use “further.” And for sense #3, the “moreover” usage, we use either “furthermore” or “further.”
We’ll have more to say later about the current uses of “further” and “farther,” but first a little etymology.
The English ancestor of all these words is the adverb “far,” a word that can be traced to a prehistoric Indo-European root that’s been reconstructed as per-. The initial p in Indo-European terms remained p in Greek and Latin, but became f in the Germanic languages.
This ancient root—or forms of it—is the source of many words that came into English through the Germanic languages. Besides “far,” these include “for,” “from,” “fore,” “before,” “forth,” “former,” “foremost,” and “first,” among others. In addition, the Indo-European root produced many words that came into English through Latin and Greek and begin with “pro-,” “per-,” and “para-.”
In the case of “far,” it was first recorded in the 8th or 9th century as feorr or feor. The word’s original meaning, the OED says, was “to a great distance” or “to a remote place.”
The dictionary’s earliest use is from the Vespasian Psalter, an illuminated manuscript from around 825 (some sources date it from 725). This Psalter, the oldest English translation of any part of the Bible, has the following line: “Tohwon dryhten gewite ðu feor” (“Why Lord has thou withdrawn so far”).
The comparative form of “far” in Old English was originally fierr (or fyrr), Oxford says. This developed into ferrer (or ferror), a 12th-century formation that survived into the 17th century, when it was spelled “farrer,” the dictionary says.
But meanwhile, competing forms of the comparative were also on the scene. The earliest was “further,” first recorded (as furðra) circa 1000, similar to the Old Saxon furthor. And “farther” (originally written as ferþer) came along as a variant of “further” around 1300.
By the 1600s, “further” and “farther” had displaced the old “farrer.” Both survived, and for most of their history they’ve been used interchangeably. Only in relatively recent times have people given them different meanings, as we wrote in a 2007 post (updated earlier this year) that cites the new fourth edition of Woe Is I, Pat’s grammar and usage book:
FARTHER/ FURTHER. Use either one for distance, whether actual or metaphorical. “I’m walking no farther [or further] than this bench,” said Lumpy. “Nothing is farther [or further] from my mind.” But use only further if there’s no notion of distance. He refused to discuss it any further. “I have nothing further to say,” he added. The upshot is that if you’re in doubt, choose further.
We also cite a usage note in Lexico (formerly Oxford Dictionaries Online):
Where the sense is “at, to, or by a greater distance,” there is no difference in meaning, and both [further and farther] are equally correct. Further is a much commoner word, though, and is in addition used in various abstract and metaphorical contexts, for example referring to time, in which farther is unusual, e.g. without further delay; have you anything further to say?; we intend to stay a further two weeks.
Why did “further” emerge before “farther” as the comparative form of “far”? Well, in Old and Middle English, “far” was spelled a great many ways—feorr, fier, furre, fyr, fur, fir, fer, fear, and for, to mention just a few—and undoubtedly the pronunciations varied too, with “fur” among them. The modern spelling “far” didn’t become firmly established until the 17th century.
What’s more, even before the comparative “further” came along, Old English had a verb, to “further” (fyrþrian, recorded in the late 800s).
As we’ve said, “furthermore” (c. 1200) appeared before the variant “farthermore” (c. 1380). However, the original Middle English spellings are barely recognizable today: “furthermore” was forrþerrmar and “farthermore” was fferþermor. Here are the OED’s earliest examples with modern spellings:
“Further~more, the forsaid Lord the Roos … schall forgevyn the forsaid Robert” (from the Rolls of Parliament, 1411). The flourish (called a “swung dash”) was sometimes used by medieval scribes to fill a space.
“Farthermore the prophetes were sory” (from a 1530 devotional treatise, The Myroure [Mirror] of Oure Ladye, by John Henry Blunt).
We could go on indefinitely about “furthest” (c. 1374) and “furthermost” (c. 1400), along with their variants “farthest” (1377) and “farthermost” (1619). But we suspect you’d prefer to read no further.