The Order of Logogustation’s monthly Words, Wines, and Whatever tasting event was drawing to a close. One of our newest members, Arlene (you may recall her from my note on beg the question and ad hominem), was looking at the chairs around the room.
“Inventorying our assets?” I said.
“It’s more about something to wear,” she said. “My jacket. Its exact present whereabouts are unknown.”
“Magnificent,” I said. “You’ve managed to include three of the top collocations for whereabouts: unknown, present, and exact.”
“True,” she said. “People seldom say that whereabouts are known.”
“In fact,” I said, “if you Google ‘whereabouts are known’ you get the suggestion ‘whereabouts are unknown’. Interestingly, if you Google ‘whereabouts is known’ you get no suggestion and far fewer hits – about fifteen percent as many. The same is/are proportion holds for unknown, but with about ten times as many hits.”
“Well, why would anyone say whereabouts is?” Very brief pause. “I suspect I’m about to find out.”
I was smiling. “It’s not a plural.”
“Of course not,” she said, looking heavenward. “Why should I assume something is a plural just because it looks like one?”
“The s is a survival of the genitive from when it was used to form adverbs – besides, anyways, towards, and so on.”
She looked at me through the tops of her glasses. “Survival of the genitive. Sounds like linguistic Darwinism.”
“Except in language some words and phrases persist long after their environment has changed to one unsuited to them.”
“Well, I’m unsuited for the environment outside,” she said. “If I don’t find something to wear about now, I will lack the wherewithal to get home comfortably, no ifs, ands, or buts.” She continued moving through the chairs. I could see her begin to roll the word around in her mouth silently as she did so: where-a-bout-s. Then she stopped and turned again to me. “So I could actually say ‘Whereabouts is my jacket’?”
“Exactly,” I said. “That was its first use: as a long way of saying ‘where’ or a short way of saying ‘in what area’. Sort of like whatever versus what.”
“Which means,” she said, “I could also say ‘My jacket’s where is unknown.'”
“True, although since we generally no longer devoice the wh, there is risk of confusion.”
“Well, there we are,” she said. “I am confused about the exact present where of my wear.”
“Yes, the whereabouts of what you will wear about outside is unknown.”
Jess came up to us. “I don’t know about that,” she said.
I raised an eyebrow. “You’re disagreeing with my syntax?”
“Your semantics,” she said. “Its whereabouts may be unknown to you, but they are not – sorry, it is not – to me.” She held up a jacket.
“Oh!” said Arlene. “Whereabouts was it?”
“Hanging off a cupboard in the kitchen,” Jess said, “but wherefore I know not.”