Wherefore does nobody know what wherefore means?

O Romeo, Romeo!
Wherefore art thou Romeo?

Undoubtedly one of the most quoted lines of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. But what’s the right answer? If you said “I’m over here!” then you’re wrong – not because of where Romeo may or may not be right now, but because that’s quite simply not what “wherefore” means.

wherefore (interrogaive adverb) – for what reason
The Concise Oxford English Dictionary

Juliet is not looking around to find her lover, she’s despairing that she should have fallen in love with one of her family’s sworn enemies: of all the people in all the world, why did he have to turn out to be Romeo Montague?

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet

So a better answer would be “just because!” or – the answer implied by Shakespeare – “by a mere accident of birth, a whim of the gods”.

So wherefore does everyone get it wrong?

There must be plenty of people who do know what “wherefore” means, but evidently there are plenty more who don’t, and simply guess that “wherefore” is a long-winded way of saying “where”. And it’s not that illogical a guess, given Shakespeare’s use of thoroughly over-the-top words – like “incarnadine”, meaning “turn red”. If it turned out that “art” or “thou” were being used wrong as well, I guess we shohuldn’t be surprised, as it is more or less the same guesswork that lets us understand those.

We’ll tak a cup of kindness yet,
For auld lang syne!

When Richard Dawkins was first pondering the idea of “memes” – self-replicating ideas subject to the same evolutionary forces he had just described in The Selfish Gene – he used the line above as an example. There is no line which says “for the sake of auld lang syne”, but people continue to sing it. He points out that the sound of people singing “the sake of” drowns out those going straight on to the “auld”, meaning the “sake of” meme is dominant, and propogates, while the more correct version cannot compete.

O Romeo, Romeo!
Wherefore art thou Romeo?

Perhaps there is something similar going on with the Shakespeare line. If you put the stress on the last “Romeo”, you can highlight the question of identity; but it’s somehow not as satisfying a rhythm as stressing the “art”, which is then more open to the where = wherefore misinterpretation. And if – as is generally the case – you are quoting the line out of context, the satisfying rhythm is the one that will stick in your mind.

Indeed, considering how few people seem to realise what it means, the line is incredibly widely quoted, suggesting that there is a catchy rhythm to it. It is, in other words, a highly successful meme, but one which has, in order to spread, abandoned its original meaning. It has become so prevalent as a ‘snowclone‘ that “wherefore art thou?” could almost be considered to have gained the meaning of “where are you?”

It still annoys me whenever I hear people getting it wrong, though!


  1. Hroth McRuss

    Hrm… well the auth-man (in contrast to authress (since author is neutral, referring to, a man or woman as author, [… rep. loop] )) Iain Banks wrote at p3 of Transition [his novel]:

    “We’ll pluck significance from the least consequential happenstance if it suits us and happily ignore the most flagrantly obvious symmetry between separate aspects of our lives if it threatens some cherished prejudice or cosily comforting belief; we are blindest to precisely whatever might be most illuminating.”

    And, another favourite auth-man, writes of analogy as the core of human cognition. Which mode of viewing thoughts and analysis, would not necessarily imply a meme-based viewpoint as such, but would suggest different observable self-referential patterns, dependent on one’s level of knowledge of the self-reference in self-reference (not question). He shows, inter alia, at that for we reason by analogy, which he shows by analogy to error making, that this is likely caused by a hidden set of routines – recognizing patterns, making connections:

    “Lexical blends, which are astonishingly common though very seldom noticed by speakers or by listeners, reveal precisely this type of unconscious competition among close relatives in the mental lexicon. A lexical blend occurs when a situation evokes two or more lexical items at once and fragments of the various evoked competitors wind up getting magically, sometimes seamlessly, spliced together into the vocalized output stream (see, for example, Hofstadter and Moser 1989). Occasionally the speaker catches such an error on its way out and corrects it, though just as often it goes totally unheard by all parties. Thus people make blends of the following sorts:

    * Word-level blends: mop/broom => brop
    * Phrase-level blends: easygoing/happy-go-lucky => easy-go-lucky
    * Sentence-level blends: We’ll leave no stone unturned/We’ll pull out all the stops => We’ll pull no stops unturned. ”


  2. seb

    These things have an out of proportion effect on the people that do know the correct meanings and the cry of “Pedant!” from those who don’t only makes us dig our heels in harder. Language is like syrup: fluid but not liquid; we acknowledge that it changes with popular use and (mis)understanding but not so fast that it loses its shape altogether.

    When a quote is used in relation to an everyday event, there maybe should be more leeway than when merely reporting what somebody said. Here, the situation of somebody looking for somebody else is one that occurs more often than that of questioning somebody’s identity. The question when this happens for those of us who spot it, is: to correct or not to correct (or indeed to boldly correct)? It might seem elementary, my dear Watson but people can get very tetchy especially if they were doing it ‘ironically’ (don’t get me started).

    Should we just be grateful that they’ve made the effort to try and bring some historical colour to their language even if it isn’t exactly as intended? You can’t please all the people all the time anyway.

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