December 11, 2017

Whomst'd've guessed it?

One of my favorite memes of 2017 has been ‘whomst’. Now ‘whomst’ started appearing early 2017, so it’s basically decrepit in meme years, but since we’re nearing the end of the year I figured it would be fun to look back at this language-based meme.

‘whomst’ is a meme that involves using the word ‘whomst’ instead of ‘who’ to appear intelligent. It has some overlap with the meme ‘me, an intellectual’ which also involves fake intelligence, and the glowing eyes memes, where ‘whomst’ has contractions added to it to become even longer and ‘better’.

One thing I have not seen anyone talk about is the form of the word ‘whomst.’ The consensus is ‘whomst’ is a fancier version of ‘who,’ but very little discussion has been given to why the fancy version of ‘who’ is ‘whomst’ and not ‘whont’ or ‘wholli’ or any other variation. And the truth is, there is very much a reason behind ‘whomst’ taking the form it took.

Hypercorrection

Ladies and gentlemen and members of the audience, this is the phenomenon to blame. The entire motivation for there even being a ‘whomst’ meme, the scourge of all prescriptivists and tool of all station-climbers... hypercorrection. Hypercorrection refers to a phenomenon where someone misuses a construction or word in an attempt to appear more "correct." The seeds of hypercorrection are planted in grammar school, when teachers tell students things like “me and Jane” is incorrect and it should actually be “Jane and I.” (Of course, those of us who study linguistics know that such value judgments are actually arbitrary and not logically consistent or even historically sound… but that’s a topic for another post). English teachers rarely, if ever, know anything about linguistics, and so their understanding of English comes from a different framework. They make statements about how some constructions are unacceptable - even though they sound perfectly normal in colloquial English - and that ‘Standard English’ is the only true way to speak English.

The problem is they often fail to actually teach why the "wrong" form doesn’t work. To use our earlier example, ‘me and Jane’. Let’s look at the pronoun. (The ordering is some weird stuff we won’t get into). Pronouns in English have these two forms, the ‘nominative’ and the ‘accusative.’ The nominative is used when a pronoun is the subject of a verb. This form is ‘I, you, he, she, it, we, they.’ You can say ‘I ran,’ but you can’t say *‘me ran’ in most varieties of English. The accusative case is used when a pronoun is the object of a verb - in other words, when something is being done to the pronoun. You can say ‘I loved him’ but not *‘I love he’.

In Standard English, pronouns in a subject position (the pronoun is the one ‘doing’ something) must be in the nominative case, even when they are joined with another word by using 'and'. So ‘me and Jane ran’ is incorrect in Standard English because *‘me ran’ is unacceptable. ‘Jane and I ran’ is okay because you can say 'I ran.' Now look at ‘He loved Jane and me.’ This one is okay because if we remove Jane, you get ‘he loved me,’ which is grammatical. *’He loved Jane and I’ is not a good sentence because ‘He loved I’ is a bad sentence.



Extra credit: who is correct, Todd or Scott? (spoiler: Todd's version is awkward but the case makes sense because "I and he" is the subject. Scott's "he and me" mixes nominative and accusative case, which is a no-no in Standard English!)

Did your teacher ever teach you any of this? Or did they just say ‘you can’t say me and X, it must be X and I’? Most teachers just broadly tell you that something is wrong and then move along through their long list of arbitrary rules. This leaves people confused and they come up with their own explanations - "'X and me' is wrong, but ‘X and I’ is correct." This leads to constructions that are actually not grammatical in Standard English, like *’between you and I.’ In Standard English, prepositions take the accusative case. It’s ‘with me,’ not *‘with I’. The form should be ‘between you and me’, but if you were never explained how this works, you’re just going to find every instance of ‘me and X’ and replace it with ‘X and I.’ This is a hypercorrection - when you go too far in trying to be right that you end up wrong. Hypercorrections are one of the ways you can spot someone who is not actually comfortable using standard language but is trying to appear as though they do.

The same applies to ‘whom.’ Most people know ‘whom’ exists, but ‘whom’ is virtually extinct in most varieties of English. Unlike the ‘you and I’ example, most teachers won’t even talk about it! Now the reality is that ‘whom’ is simply the accusative form of ‘who’. If you can replace who with a pronoun in the accusative case, you can use ‘whom’. “Who did he love?” “He loved her.” -> “Whom did he love?” If you can replace ‘who’ with the nominative, then don’t change anything. “Who went to the store?” “They went to the store.” The key: whom can never go in the subject position.

Zac Efron demonstrates the social consequences of misusing who and whom.

All of this is lost on people who know there is a word ‘whom’ and that it is used by well-educated people. The assumption is that ‘whom’ is a ‘fancy’ or ‘more correct’ version of ‘who’ and so you get ungrammatical sentences like *‘whom went to the store?’ This is a dead giveaway that a person is not actually well versed on Standard English grammar and is trying hard to look smarter than they really are. This is part one of ‘whomst’. But we’re not content to stop there - there’s an -st there.

The -st

Think about ‘among’ and ‘while.’ In the United States, these are the standard versions. However, there are variants: ‘amongst’ and ‘whilst’. Now, people hate it when two words mean exactly the same thing, so they try to come up with some distinction between them to justify having two different words. ‘Grammar nerds’ will argue over when it is appropriate to use ‘among’ or ‘amongst,’ and people come up with the most bizarre and ahistorical justifications like ‘among is for people and amongst is for inanimate objects’ (I've actually seen this one). The reality is that ‘amongst’ and ‘whilst’ mean exactly the same as their shorter brethren; they are simply older and rarer. If you only encounter ‘amongst’ in literature, though, you may be forgiven for thinking that ‘amongst’ is the ‘literary variant’ - and the logic goes "literary = more educated." This leads to some people falsely saying ‘amongst’ is the ‘proper’ form and ‘among’ is the colloquial!

As you’ll notice, both of these words comprise a well known word (among/while) and what appears to be a suffix, -st. By analogy, couldn’t you just add ‘-st’ to make a word fancy and literary? What if we added it to an already fancy and literary word like… whom? We’d have the most educated word in the world! And so it appears ‘whomst' was born by analogy.

Size Matters

But the whomst meme doesn’t stop there! In many of the comics, ‘whomst’ is simply the first level. To reach true awakening, you must use ‘whomst’d’, or even ‘whomst’d’ve’. Wow, my eyes sure hurt from all this glowing.

This is a weird expansion of the word, because they are adding contractions. Whomst’d would therefore be ‘whomst had’ or ‘whomst would’. ‘Whomst’d’ve’ would be ‘whomst would have’. Contractions are usually considered informal, and double contractions like ‘who’d’ve’ are considered especially unfit for the written page by stodgy guardians of propriety. Why would adding contractions make ‘whomst’ an even more ‘fake intelligent’ word?

My theory - this has to do with the English belief that ‘long words’ are more ‘literary.’ Have you ever heard someone accuse someone else of using ‘big words’? ‘Big words’ refer to words that are usually found in books and are ‘long’. This is in comparison to normal words: lightning, not fulmination. It’s very unusual because this isn’t really a thing in other languages. In Spanish, there are plenty of common words that are long. Agglutinating languages like Turkish and Japanese add so many suffixes to words that almost every word in a normal sentence can be a long word!

The belief that longer word = literary word seems to have some correlation with the fact that the base of English vocabulary is of Germanic origin, while the ‘learned’ vocabulary is of Latin and Greek origin. The Germanic words are often monosyllabic, like ‘egg’ and ‘word’. The Latin words, meanwhile, have many syllables, like ‘deconstruction.’ The meanings of these words are transparent to people who speak Romance languages or Greek (de = to undo; construct = to build; -tion = make the verb into a noun), they are not transparent to English speakers without further explanation. The end result is that an association arises between how long a word is and how learned the user must be.
Now English does not have a ton of suffixes it can add on to ‘whomst’, but it does have contractions. In this way ‘whomst’d’ is longer than ‘whomst’ and ‘whomst’d’ve’ is even longer. You can see it get crazier and more nonsensical with stuff like ‘whomst’d’ve’ll’.

Ask Not For Whomst The Bell Tolls

The fun of this meme is that it’s totally silly - it mocks people who want to put on airs without actually going through the trouble of learning anything new. ‘Whomst’ is brilliant - I don’t know if the originator had -st in mind when coming up with it, but it just works so well by analogy with amongst. Unfortunately, memes have a lifespan, and it appears that ‘whomst’ is nearing its end. Farewell, brave linguistic meme. Whomst’d’ve ever expected you?

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