English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Usage Word origin Writing

‘Which, yeah. Whatever.’

Q: Have you noticed that “which” is now being used as a conjunction, as in “The Fed raised interest rates again, which I’m not sure if it’s a good idea”? And no, I don’t mean “which I’m not sure is a good idea,” a usage you referred to in a recent post.

A: The use of “which” as a conjunction has been around a lot longer than you think, but only one of the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult has an entry for it.

Merriam-Webster says the conjunction is “an introductory particle” used “before a word or phrase that is a reaction to or commentary on the previous clause.” The usage is labeled “informal” (used in speech and casual writing, though not nonstandard).

M-W has an example similar to yours: “This morning we have the monthly jobs report, which who knows if it will meet or beat expectations.”

In that example, “which” precedes a clause. In M-W’s other two examples, it precedes a word or a phrase that stands in for a clause:

“I have a very big reputation in Vancouver for being a sore loser, which, fair enough.”

“The remains had initially been misidentified as those of an ‘enormous, possibly human-eating eagle,’ which … yikes.”

The dictionary says the first known use of “which” in this sense dates back to 1723. It doesn’t cite a source, but M-W may be referring to “Mary the Cook-Maid’s Letter to Dr. Sheridan,” a 1723 poem by Jonathan Swift. Here’s an excerpt:

And now, whereby I find you would fain make an excuse.
Because my master one day, in anger, call’d you goose:
Which, and I am sure I have been his servant four years since October,
And he never call’d me worse than sweetheart, drunk or sober.

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological reference, says this “which” is “used in anacoluthic [syntactically inconsistent] sentences as a connective or introductory particle with no antecedent.”

The OED describes the usage as “chiefly English regional, U.S. regional, and nonstandard.” As for us, we’d consider the usage nonstandard until a few other standard dictionaries join M-W and accept it as informal.

Oxford dates this iffy usage from the early 15th century, much earlier than Merriam-Webster’s first dating of “which” used as a conjunction.

The first OED citation is from The History of the Holy Grail (circa 1410), by the English poet Henry Lovelich. In this passage, the blind Mordreins asks Josephes to advise him where to retire:

“I wolde that ȝe wolden Conseillen Me Where I myht ben In place preve, Awey from this peple here that scholen ben trowbled In diuers Manere, whiche that were gret Noysaunce to Me Amonges hem thanne forto be.”

(“I would that ye would counsel me where I might be in a place of privacy, away from these people here that shall be troubled in diverse manner, which that were a great annoyance to me among them for to be.”)

The most recent Oxford citation is from The Ground Beneath Her Feet, a 1999 novel by Salman Rushdie:

“If this is your wish Mr. Standish which I’m offering no opinion then so be it, it’s your call. You change your mind you come and see me.”

In a related entry, the OED discusses a similar, more recent colloquial use of “which” to introduce “a comment, exclamation, etc., in response or reaction to a preceding statement.”

The Oxford citations for this usage resemble some of the M-W examples mentioned earlier.

The earliest OED citation  is from an Aug. 23, 2004, entry on The Food Whore, a now-defunct website: “He wasn’t happy with me. Which, yeah. Whatever.”

The most recent example is a July 31, 2021, comment on Twitter:  “People always talk about how attractive Charlotte is (which, fair point) but Nancy … sigh.”

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