Word Matters Podcast

Is it 'further' or 'farther'?

Word Matters, Episode 41

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Further and farther. They're one letter apart; how different could they be? Well, we regret to inform you that English is at it again. Also, let's get into another linguistic curiosity: how did we end up with the phrase "raining cats and dogs"?

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Emily Brewster: These words have a long, very tangled history, and they are ultimately the same word.

Ammon Shea: My personal theory is that it did, at that point, occasionally rain other things, and this was a known scientific phenomenon.

Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters: moving further, or is it farther, along, and the language's most absurd deluge idiom. I'm Emily Brewster, and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski, and I explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point. A correspondent describes being perplexed over the near identical pair further and farther. When is one to be preferred over the other? It turns out that the answer to that question is something of a moving target.

We have a letter from Ramona. "I just listened to your podcast on fewer versus less. Interesting. I have another. I am totally perplexed about the difference between further and farther, so much so that I have an internal debate with myself when I am about to use one of them. Frequently, my recourse is to give up and choose another word." I think it's a very interesting pair. First off, I want to say that these words have a long, very tangled history, and they are ultimately the same word, and they have nothing to do with far, as far as they're etymologically speaking. They come from the old English word forth, meaning "forth," F-O-R-T-H, not the number four. There's a rule that's taught about further and farther, and I think that rule is part of why this pair becomes tricky. If there were no rule, people would just use them, and that would be that. The rule that is taught is that you are to use farther for distance, as in "drive farther" or the "farther shore," and you're to use further everywhere else. "A situation complicated further by X," or "further research is needed." The idea is, whether distance is metaphorical or literal, that you should use farther, because it's associated with the word far. Now, that rule at one time reflected usage to some degree, but it really doesn't anymore, and it hasn't for a very long time. The word further is significantly more common overall. Actually, Henry Fowler in Fowler's Modern Usage said, I think it was the 1926 edition, he said that he thought further would eventually overtake and farther would disappear from the language. That has not happened, but these words have shifted in prominence in different contexts. Further is the one that's always used in these stable phrases, like "without further ado," or as a sentence modifier, a sentence adverb, like, "further, we must consider blah, blah, blah." Farther used to be used as a figurative adjective in phrases like "farther revelations" and "farther developments," but that does not exist anymore. Right? Nobody says "farther developments are being seen, and blah, blah, blah." Farther has really decreased significantly in how frequently it's used. I did a bunch of searches using the Google Ngram Viewer, which is an imperfect tool, but it is very informative in this case, because we can compare these different phrases very easily over time as they were used in a set of published books. Since the 1830s, "go further" has been more common than "go farther." Since the 1830s. Whether it's metaphorical or literal distance, "go further" is the one that's dominant. Since the 1840s, "further along" has been dominant. Only since the very late 20th century, "further down the road," "further up the road" has been significantly more common than "farther down the road" or "farther up the road."

Neil Serven: Even though that seems quite literal about distance.

Emily Brewster: It's certainly about distance, whether that distance is literal or metaphorical.

Neil Serven: Right, of course.

Emily Brewster: It is very, very certainly about distance. Since only 2000, "walk further" has been significantly more common than "walk farther."

Peter Sokolowski: We're presented with a lot of these sort of either/or usage questions, where it's two different words that get conflated with one another, and are there instances where one should be used instead of the other, like fewer and less. I have to say, with further and farther, when one is used in the improper way, the assigned improper way, I cannot say I would even prick up my ears and notice that. I feel like the difference between these two is just so thin, mainly because they sound very similar, and so in spoken English, sometimes you can't even tell which word a person is using. They might blur the vowel and end up somewhere in between. But, if somebody were to use further for distance or farther for something else progressing, I can't say I would actually be distracted the way I would sometimes where I notice when people are using less when they should be using fewer. It's not the same to me. I don't put it in the same category at all.

Emily Brewster: Yeah, that's interesting. Also, I think that makes the fact that these patterns exist in this one database, anyway, I think that makes it really interesting. I did find a couple examples where farther, in recent years it is dominating. Since 1990, "farther shore" has been the more common collocation, and since only 2004 "farther side" has been the more common collocation. Again, with all sorts of caveats about the imperfect tool that is the Google Ngram Viewer. But, it does say something about what was being used, what is used in published works.

Peter Sokolowski: Well, you mentioned that these words do not come from far, they come from forth. Right? They're related to the word forth. But, when people say "the farther shore," you have to think that they are thinking it is the shore that is more far away.

Emily Brewster: That's right. Etymology aside, the word far is visible and is audible in the word farther.

Peter Sokolowski: I think that sort of enters into people's calculation of which word to use.

Emily Brewster: Sure, of course. To address Ramona's question, though, any native speakers should just trust their own instincts with this pair. Just say whichever one feels more comfortable to you in whatever context, and know that both have been used in all kinds of contexts over the years, and that they have the same meaning. If you are not a native speaker, you can choose to follow that rule, and that's kind of a safe position to take, or you could just do as Henry Fowler thought everyone would eventually do, and just say further for everything.

You are listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster, and we'll be back after the break with precipitation of the domesticated animal kind. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Neil Serven: I'm Neil Serven. Do you have a question about the origin, history, or meaning of a word? Email us wordmatters@m-w.com.

Peter Sokolowski: I am Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for the word of the day, a brief look at the definition and history of one word, available at merriam-webster.com, or wherever you get your podcasts. For more podcasts from New England Public Media, visit the NEPM podcast hub at nepm.org.

Emily Brewster: Consider a day when the need for an umbrella is indisputable because of the sheets of water falling from the sky. Chances are, an English speaker will describe such weather by saying that it's raining cats and dogs. A correspondent wants to know just how our typically dry and earthbound pets got looped into a description of heavy rain. Here's Ammon Shea with an examination of the idiom.

Ammon Shea: Gordon Legg writes and asks, "Can you tell me about the origin of it's raining cats and dogs?" He is a professor at the University of Minnesota, and says he has international PhD students from China who find this phrase amusing and have asked him about its origin. In response to, can we tell you about the origin of it's raining cats and dogs, the short answer is no. The long answer is no, and the very long answer is no, but with a bunch of citations thrown in there. We don't know exactly why we say this. We just know that it has existed in some form or another since the middle of the 17th century. The earliest written record that we have of it is from a poem by Henry Vaughn titled "Upon A Cloak Lent Him by Mr. Jay Risley" in 1651, "And it's themselves with such a roof that can secure their wares from dogs and cats rained in shower," and so it's dogs and cats rather than cats and dogs. Then several years later, we see in a work by Richard Brome called The City Wit, "From henceforth the world show flow with dunces and it shall rain dogs and polecats," and so forth. Polecat of course is not a cat or a pole, it's a relative of the weasel, but it's still with dogs first. Then in the later part of the 17th century in 1685, we see a use of it, "Fear not, if it rains cats and dogs, I will come." That was by an anonymous writer in a piece titled A Pleasant Dialogue Betwixt Honest John and Loving Kate.

As far as I know, and maybe some of you folks know differently, there has never been a real plausible explanation for nailing down why we say it's raining cats and dogs. There've been many, many theories, and my personal theory is that it did at that point occasionally rain other things, and this was a known scientific phenomenon. There's a piece from the early 17th century Edward Topsell's The History of Serpents, and he talks about these prodigious rains of frogs and mice, little fishes and stones, things basically falling out of the sky. He says, "Such like things are not to be wondered at," and he gives an explanation for how this comes about. This was something that happened.

Emily Brewster: What's the explanation?

Ammon Shea: The rage of the winds and the top of the mountains or the uppermost parts of the sea, it kind of takes these things up in the air, and which afterwards fall down and rain. "Also, doth it take up frogs and fishes, which being above in the air must needs fall down again." It's basically saying I think that small animals get brought up by the air and then they fall down.

Peter Sokolowski: There's sort of an allusion to biblical plague there. If you think about anything of the raining the frogs, raining locusts, I think maybe that reference would have been in people's heads and when they came up with this phrase, this fun rephrase raining cats and dogs. You could also throw out the idea that cats and dogs make a lot of noise, and when it's raining torrently outside, then you're hearing a lot of noise the way you would if you heard cats and dogs fighting in the street. Those are my two wild guesses, which are not as valid as anyone else's.

Ammon Shea: Right. We did use cats and dogs as a kind of fixed phrase to talk about entities not getting along, going back a hundred years prior to this use, like the middle of the 16th century. This was a kind of fixed thing that we talked about. They get along like cats and dogs. or they fight like cats and dogs.

Emily Brewster: But, then, is the idea that when it's raining cats and dogs, it's actually raining enmity?

Ammon Shea: I like that.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah, it's pretty good. I mean, the thing is, many people seek logical explanations for idioms. Idioms are almost always made up of parts that do not equal the whole. For lexicographers who are often asked this kind of question, where did this come from? Why do we say there's an elephant in the room, for example? It can be extremely difficult because we base our definitions on context and seeing what a word means in context. Some of these idioms are kind of the remains of the context. We have the words, but they no longer refer to what they had originally referred to. I think Ben Zimmer once said, "Idioms are like barnacles on the ships of language. We have the shells stuck to the hull, but we have no idea what the original animal was." For lexicographers, idioms are a huge problem, and in fact, they were often not included in dictionaries and a comprehensive way. We are including more and more today, because they're such an important part of language, and especially for learners of English as this professor points out, when a slice of cake is dessert, that's what we say. But, when it's a piece of cake, it's no longer served as food, so we need to make sure that we define the difference.

Emily Brewster: Well, happily for lexicographers, we don't have to find the origin of these phrases. We just need to define how they function in the language, what's the semantic content there. The reason that an idiom survives is because it's somehow evocative. It's something that the speakers of the language find powerful in some way, and so that's why it's raining cats and dogs can survive.

Neil Serven: These things, they're metaphors, they're little stories. To say from the horse's mouth or the elephant in the room, these are fantastic use of language.

Emily Brewster: I like your theory, Ammon, about these frogs can rain down from the sky and everybody is like, that's not remarkable.

Ammon Shea: Those frogs again.

Emily Brewster: Right, but when it's really raining, what you've got is cats and dogs fighting with each other and causing all kinds of noise, and there's something powerful in the image. Here we are, now using that image again in our language hundreds of years after it was first used.

Ammon Shea: That's my theory, and I'm sticking with it.

Emily Brewster: Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us on Apple podcasts or email us at wordmatters@m-w.com. You can also visit us at nepm.org, and for the word of the day and all your general dictionary needs, visit merriam-webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt, artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by Adam Maid and John Voci. For Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

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