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Word Tasting Note: "Thoroughfare"

There is a Fairmont Hotel not too far from where I live (two blocks), and the other day I noticed a sign in front of its unloading area advising motorists that there was no throughfare.

Now, tell me: haven't you always thought that throughfare seemed more sensible than thoroughfare? I mean, it's a through road, not a thorough road, right? Have you perhaps once or more questioned yourself as to whether you even remembered correctly which it was?

And, by the way, why are we talking about fares when it's a road, not something you pay to ride? Shouldn't throughfare be the money you pay to go all the way through to somewhere?

Well, those are all fare, I mean fair, questions, and they deserve a reasonably thorough answer.

Let's start with the fact that through and thorough used to be the same word. Old English had a few variations on some words, and the word þurh got a version that had an extra vowel added to make þuruh (that letter þ is a thorn, the way "th" used to be written; for more on how English used to be, see "An Appreciation of English: A language in motion" and "What's up with English spelling?"). Other words that got this epenthetic vowel include burrow, furrow, borrow, sorrow, and marrow. As for the one-syllable version, it swapped the two middle sounds around and then let go of the velar fricative at the end (though we still write it: gh).

So through and thorough are from the same? Yes: to go through is to go all the way, from side to side or end to end; to be thorough is to do something all the way, from side to side or end to end. In fact, thorough has a solid history of use as a preposition and adverb quite in parallel to through; you could still see it as such in an 1847 poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson: "Thorough a thousand voices Spoke the universal dame."

But now, in the age of thru, we have no thurro or anything like that. But we still have that old fixed form thoroughfare on our lexical bill of fare.

Ah, yes, fare. Cognate with German fahren — indeed, thoroughfare in German is Durchfahrt, which is thoroughly cognate (cognate through and through). Originally a reference to a road or way or journey; then a passage or conveyance (and there's the verb, as in How are you faring?); then the price for the passage; then there was the mode of proceeding, and on the basis of that a list of a food to be provided — as in bill of fare.

So there. And we need go no further for now. We can content ourselves with tasting the sounds of this word: it is soft, with its voiceless fricatives like wind siffling and soughing in the heather. As thoroughfare, it requires no pursing of the lips as throughfare would; it has that extra fractional syllable, almost just a lengthening of the /r/ in many cases, that gives it a bit more rhythm and length. Thoroughfare is more like the sound and sway of a night trip on train or bus, whereas throughfare would be more like an arrow or two, or some rapid means of conveyance (bullet train or air), with its one-two swing and whiffle.

Either way, it's a long word, with (ugh) three orthographic unphonological (silent) letters in the middle and another at the end. Its heart is rough, but it doesn't give you a rough ride. But let us address that Fairmont question: can you spell it — and say it — throughfare?

Well, I mean, you can, but will people look at it and think "That's wrong"? Will it in fact be wrong?

The answer is that it has been spelled that way at times in the past. And I would not at all be surprised, especially now that thorough meaning "through" is not used, if in the future it came to be that normally. But in the here and now, I'll just say it's not in the dictionary as such. I think that's thorough and fair.


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James Harbeck is an editor by day, a designer by night, and a writer by Jove! His love of wine tasting crossed with his love of language to spawn word tasting notes, which appear daily at his blog, Sesquiotica. Buy his just-released book of salacious verse on English usage, Songs of Love and Grammar, on Lulu.com. Click here to read more articles by James Harbeck.

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Comments from our users:

Monday September 17th 2012, 1:20 AM
Comment by: Noel B.
Depending on context, we usually see either "no thoroughfare", or "no through road"...
Monday September 17th 2012, 2:33 PM
Comment by: Rae (Titusville, FL)
Our author did a thorough job on that post.
Tuesday September 18th 2012, 5:26 PM
Comment by: Mike (Florissant, MO)
I don't know if the job was thorough in that it went from end end or start to finish, but is surely was precise and accurate.

Or was it? A quick check of definitions of 'through' and 'thorough' revealed that one definition of thorough included 'through' but the definition of through did not include the use of 'thorough'.

Finally, a search for the term 'throughfare' came up with zero results. So, maybe 'thoroughfair' refers only to transportion and travel such as roads, rivers, etc, and 'throughroad' or 'throughstreet' are used to specify the differences between thorough and through?

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