"Holier-than-thou" and "Fare thee well"

Discussion in 'English Only' started by DaveWen, Apr 3, 2013.

  1. DaveWen Member

    I'm thinking aren't the words "thou" and "thee" used wrongly in these two sayings?
    When you use the word "than", shouldn't the thing compared to be in the accusative case, i.e. shouldn't it be "holier than thee" instead? As for the second one, isn't the listener the subject in the sentence, thus "thou" should be in the nominative case instead?
    Never heard anyone objecting to these sayings, nor have I heard people saying "holier-than-thee" or "fare thou well", so I want to confirm that I'm not making a mistake here :/
    Last edited: Apr 3, 2013
  2. entangledbank

    entangledbank Senior Member

    English - South-East England
    Formerly the nominative was used after 'than'. Some people still say this (he is taller than I), but most people now use the accusative. Think of it as elliptical for 'taller than I am', 'holier than thou art'.

    'Fare thee well' is puzzling. I remember we talked about it in this forum a while ago. At first glance it looks like an imperative with a subject, but no, 'thee' can't be subject. So what is it? The idea I suggested was that 'fare' is a subjunctive used to express a wish, and 'thee' is a beneficiary or indirect object: so something like "may it/things fare well with/to thee".
  3. DaveWen Member

    Oh, I see. Now these two sayings make much more sense to me. Thanks for the reply.
  4. Keith Bradford

    Keith Bradford Senior Member

    Brittany, NW France
    English (Midlands UK)
    Three points:

    a) These are set expressions and (as you say) "holier-than-thee" or "fare thou well" are never used instead.
    b) There is no hard rule on the accusative after "than"; personally I agree with you, but other people might think that it's an abbreviated form of "holier than thou art".
    c) Since the thee/thou forms went out of general use in the early 17th century, it would take a specialist to analyse the grammar then prevailing.
  5. natkretep

    natkretep Moderato con anima (English Only)

    English (Singapore/UK), basic Chinese
    There's a book by Albert Harris Tollman, Questions on Shakespeare (1918) where 'fare thee well' is discussed, and he offers 5 possible explanations with many assuming an error or confusion. Shakespeare does use 'fare thou well' in The Tempest too.
    Entangledbank's explanation looks like Tollman's explanation (3).
    Last edited: Apr 3, 2013
  6. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    I wouldn't dismiss this possibility quite so quickly. In analogy to the 2nd plural objective case you that replaced the original nominative ye, English dialects that have preserved the 2nd singular often replace the original nominative thou with the objective case thee, like in the North (Don't thee 'thee' me, thee!) or in the West (thee bist instead of thou art).

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