For “Whomst” the Bell Tolls: A Personal Take on Etymology

Photo courtesy @dankmemes on Instagram

Samuel Beckett wrote that “the forms are many in which the unchanging seeks relief from formlessness.” What is it, really, that we articulate through language? The forms of language are many, but each is underpinned by the same unchanging energy – that unshakable sense that there’s something more to say, but can’t be said within language’s own oppressive frameworks. How often have you found yourself looking for a word that doesn’t exist? How can we possibly begin to speak our sense of things as they are, or as they appear to us? Who amongst us hasn’t reached for the occasional invented word? Or maybe the question is not “who,” but “whomst?”

At first glance, “whomst” almost seems like an actual word. But rather than being some archaic form of “who” or “whom,” “whomst” has its origins in a meme. You won’t find it in the Oxford English Dictionary, and you probably shouldn’t use it in any formal academic work. But “whomst” has found a rich life on the internet, in the hands of the anonymous Twitter users and meme accounts who popularized the word’s usage in late 2016.

Crowdsourced slang encyclopedia Urban Dictionary elaborates on “whomst”: “For times when you want to ask ‘who or whom,’ but need a fancier connotation.” Another entry uses the word in a sentence: “For whomst did you buy this Dalmore 62 Single Highland Malt Scotch 1942 Matheson?” The “-st” suffix adds a kind of faux-aristocratic air to an otherwise ordinary interrogative pronoun.

The usage of “whomst” is identical to that of its provincial cousin, “who,” but the difference in style and effect couldn’t be more stark. And the forms are many in which “whomst” seeks to express its unchanging commitment to linguistic sophistication. Coordinate forms of “whomst” (as listed on Urban Dictionary) include “whomst’d,” “whomst’d’ve,” “whomst’d’ve’ed,” and “whomst’d’ve’ly.” Each added suffix gives “whomst” a new level of complexity, but ultimately points toward that same “unchanging” idea at its ideological center.

For some, “whomst” marks the breakdown of the traditional system of grammar within which they’ve been conditioned to operate. Alex Findlay PO ‘18 told TSL that “memes are art destroying language.” That is to say that memes are complicit in a gradual process of linguistic erosion, and that “whomst,” itself as a kind of meme, is complicit.

Tessa Finley PO ’18 shares Findlay’s grand concerns about the nature of art and language. She elaborated on memes in an email to TSL: “when people talk about memes destroying language, i wonder about what and whom is at stake, what we might lose and for whomsts' sake. and at who's hands [sic].” 

The academic powers that be seem to share this skepticism; I sent inquiries about “whomst” to several linguistics professors and received no responses.

To me, “whomst” represents a natural progression of the English language. When a fundamentally “formless” idea (in this case, a valence of sophistication) can’t fully express itself in a given word, it erupts into an entirely new word. Who’s to say we shouldn’t start our cover letters with “To Whomstsoever It May Concern?” Who would deny that some words have more personality than others and that “whomst” represents a pinnacle of form for form’s sake? It’s the interrogative pronoun par excellence, the hilariously ostentatious emperor of its peers.

Language is constantly failing us. Its fundamental insufficiency leaves us with an inability to express or say what we think we mean. But, Beckett tells us “there is no use indicting words,” since “they are no shoddier than what they peddle.” If it’s no use railing against the insufficiency of language, why not simply embrace it by way of parody? “Whomst,” with its endless array of interchangeable suffixes, is the result of an idea’s unwillingness to conform to language. It stands for resistance in the face of a thoroughly traditional, rigid system. Whomst can’t get behind that?

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