How rare soever it may be

Muriel Spark - The Abbess of Crewe - Penguin book coverChapter 3 of Muriel Spark’s witty novel The Abbess of Crewe (1974) begins with a lingering description of an object that proves centrally significant to the story unfolding in loose parallel to Watergate, the events of which Spark satirises.

One word in one line in particular interests me, and is underlined, but the whole paragraph is a pleasure to read:

Felicity’s work-box is known as Felicity’s only because she brought it to the convent as part of her dowry. It is no mean box, being set on fine tapered legs with castors, standing two and a half feet high. The box is inlaid with mother-of-pearl and inside it has three tiers neatly set out with needles, scissors, cottons and silks in perfect compartments. Beneath all these is a false bottom lined with red watered silk, for love-letters. Many a time has Alexandra stood gazing at this box with that certain wonder of the aristocrat at the treasured toys of the bourgeoisie. ‘I fail to see what mitigation soever can be offered for that box,’ she remarked one day, in Felicity’s hearing, to the late Abbess Hildegarde who happened to be inspecting the sewing room. Hildegarde made no immediate reply, but once outside the room she said, ‘It is in poison-bad taste, but we are obliged by our vows to accept mortifications. And, after all, everything is hidden here. Nobody but ourselves can see what is beautiful and what is not.

The adverb soever (‘of any kind, in any way, to any extent’), from so + ever, is not a word I see often except as a combining form packaged in words like whatsoever, wheresoever and howsoever. Its Google Books curve shows a long and seemingly irreversible decline, echoed by the red underlines Microsoft Word sees fit to bestow on it:

google ngram viewer soever

Note too that a lot of the hits in the long tail tapering towards 2000 are false positives. Only a few of the major dictionaries include it; Merriam-Webster’s entry offers useful syntactic detail:

1 : to any possible or known extent — used after an adjective preceded by how or a superlative preceded by the <how fair soever she may be> <the most selfish soever in this world>

2 : of any or every kind that may be specified — used after a noun modified especially by any, no, or what <gives no information soever>

It is the second of these that Spark uses in The Abbess of Crewe. Oxford Dictionaries labels soever archaic or literary, and it certainly has that flavour for me. I don’t remember seeing it used (unironically) in any 21stC texts, and few enough 20thC ones.

Shakespeare used various forms of it, covering both of M-W’s senses: in King John (‘Whose tongue so ere speakes false’), Love’s Labour’s Lost (‘How low soever the matter’), The Merry Wives of Windsor (‘of what complexion soever’), Richard III (‘Of what degree soever’; ‘Whose hand soever lanced their tender hearts’), and Troilus and Cressida (‘How rank soever rounded in with danger’).

In the centuries since, though, it has faded from use to the point where its appearance in a fairly modern book is virtually an event for a curious-word-loving reader.

18 Responses to How rare soever it may be

  1. I don’t know about all over the world (ie outside the US), but here, I believe “castor” refers to an oily substance often used to stimulate the intestines. A “caster” refers to the wheel on a piece of furniture that makes it easy to move. Am I wrong?

    • Stan Carey says:

      Both caster and castor have multiple senses, some of them overlapping, and either spelling can be used to refer to the small swivelling wheel on a piece of furniture.

      • lectorconstans says:

        Could it be a British English spelling? They get many words wrong, like “tyre”, “colour”, &c.
        One of the hard parts about English is the “er” vs “or” – both could designate “one who or that which”. I read somewhere that
        ‘or” goes with Latin-derived words (“operator”); “er” with all the rest (“designer”).
        More than that, “caster” could be a verb: “be not a caster of bread upon the waters”.

      • Stan Carey says:

        Tyre and colour are not wrong, and caster in ‘be not a caster of bread’ is a noun, not a verb.

        I agree that -er vs. -or can be tricky. But sometimes both forms are acceptable.

      • Kate Bunting says:

        I would call the first “castor oil”, and spell the wheel with an ‘o’ too. The ‘e’ spelling suggests to me a sugar caster (a silver object like a big pepperpot that used to be used for “casting” sugar over a fruit dessert).

  2. Pauntley Roope says:

    There is, I suspect, a third sense – which might be tied particularly to the notion of time or ‘ever-ness’. (As in ‘always’.) Apparent in the King John quote, where the compound is split and poignantly, perhaps, in the Richard III quote.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Maybe so, Pauntley – rather like forever. It’s also worth comparing the OED’s all-purpose sense 2: ‘Used with generalizing or emphatic force after words or phrases preceded by how, what, which, whose, etc.’ (Its sense 1 is an obsolete soever meaning ‘whenever’.)

  3. I’ve long wondered about the history of “whoever” vs “whosoever”. Apart from the obvious difference that “whoever” is more typically modern English and “whosoever” is more associated with the King James Bible, there is also the difference that “whosoever” is understood as more emphatic, more absolute, admitting no possibility of exception. What I don’t know (but can idly speculate on) is how that difference came about historically.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Whosoever is invariably very formal, too, at least in current use, whereas whoever spans different registers. A comparative history would certainly be interesting.

  4. astraya says:

    Sunday’s anthem was ‘O how glorious is the kingdom’ by Basil Harwood. The words, from various parts of the Book of Revelation, include the phrase ‘whithersoever he goeth’. The website bibleapps.com lists 27 occurrences of ‘whithersoever’ in the KJV. Google Ngrams records no results for ‘whither * soever’. (I was thinking of, possibly, ‘whither place soever’.)

  5. Vinetta Bell says:

    A gifted writer uses words that fit the way a period piece of furniture complements the attire of those living in that time. We, the reader, are privileged to glimpse into a world soever enriched by the writer’s ability to assemble narrative period pieces.
    Good morning/afternoon, Stan and your followers:
    Again, you have given us your beautiful language in response to exquisite writing. Thanks!

    • Stan Carey says:

      Very nicely said, Vinetta: and absolutely true of Spark. Her books seem to operate on multiple levels at once, so even the very short ones (like Abbess) make for rich reading.

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