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Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The whys and wherefores

The subject of my ballet appreciation courses this week has been Romeo and Juliet, and we've been watching some pretty fabulous balcony scene pas de deux:

Of course, in ballet they don't have to use words at all, but in Shakespeare this scene includes the famous line "Oh Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?"

Wherefore does not mean "where".

It means "why". Juliet is lamenting the fact that Romeo is who he is, the son of the enemies of her family. WHY oh why does it have to be that way? Why are you Romeo Montague and not some Capulet guy my parents would be happy to marry me off to? 

Think of it as a twin of "therefore". "Therefore" makes a statement: "as a result, in consequence". "Wherefore" asks the question: "as a result OF WHAT?" Unlike "therefore", though, "wherefore" is pretty much dead in English except in the (redundant) phrase "whys and wherefores" and... in mistaken allusions to Romeo and Juliet!

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About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.