Wayfaring stranger

I’m just a poor wayfaring stranger;
I’m traveling through this world of woe,
Yet there’s no sickness, toil nor danger
In that bright land to which I go.
I’m going there to see my mother/father,
I’m going there no more to roam;
I’m only going over Jordan,
I’m only going over home.

So begins one version of an American folksong that Wikipedia says was most likely composed in the early 19th century. I had occasion to listen to a recording of “Poor Wayfaring Stranger” the other day, and I was reminded of how much I like a semi-old-fashioned native English word like wayfaring (and its associated noun wayfarer). Of Anglo-Saxon origin though the term clearly is, its two elements turn out to have cognates in Spanish and many other related languages.

The first part of the compound, way, arose from the Indo-European root *wegh- that meant ‘to go’ and also ‘to carry in a vehicle.’ That root gave rise in Latin to via, whose v we are reminded was pronounced like an English w. The fundamental sense of Latin via was the same, in fact, as English way, and specific senses included ‘highway, road, path, street.’ By extension the Latin word also came to mean ‘journey’ and ‘passage’ and even more abstractly ‘method, manner, mode.’ We see echoes of all those things in the almost unchanged Spanish vía (and note that the modern bilabial pronunciation of Spanish v has moved part-way back to that of the Latin v).

The faring in wayfaring is from the verb fare, many of whose meanings Noah Webster enumerated in his dictionary of 1828:

1. To go; to pass; to move forward; to travel. So on he fares, and to the border comes of Eden. [In this literal sense the word is not in common use.]

2. To be in any state, good or bad; to be attended with any circumstances or train of events, fortunate or unfortunate. So fares the stag among th’ enraged hounds. So fared the knight between two foes. He fared very well; he fared very ill.

Go further and fare worse. The sense is taken from going, having a certain course; hence, being subjected to a certain train of incidents. The rich man fared sumptuously every day. He enjoyed all the pleasure which wealth and luxury could afford. Luke 16.

3. To feed; to be entertained. We fared well; we had a good table, and courteous treatment.

4. To proceed in a train of consequences, good or bad. So fares it when with truth falsehood contends.

5. To happen well or ill; with it impersonally. We shall see how it will fare with him.

This is the fare, we might add, of farewell and its reversal, welfare. The verb arose from the highly productive Indo-European root *per- in its sense of ‘to lead, to pass over.’ The root gave rise in Latin to portare ‘to carry’; that evolved to Spanish portar, which hasn’t fared all that well and has yielded much of its basic semantic ground to llevar and traer. The reflexive portarse, though, is not on welfare, and thrives in the sense of ‘to behave.’ So in leaving all of you today I’ll mix my languages and say Farewell and Pórtense bien.

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. kathryningrid
    Jan 10, 2012 @ 00:32:58

    . . . and if you can’t be good . . . 😉

    Well, you did that one up to a fare-thee-well. Thanks!


  2. Steve Schwartzman
    Jan 10, 2012 @ 07:41:45

    I thank thee well.


  3. shoreacres
    Jan 16, 2012 @ 20:44:10

    This is rich fare you’ve offered – little wonder your blog’s considered such a desirable waystation!

    “Wayfarer” always has seemed a slightly poignant word to me. It seems to imply journey without rest. It may only be that an early association with the song loaded all of that meaning onto the word.

    (Very nice music, by the way…)


  4. Steve Schwartzman
    Jan 16, 2012 @ 21:02:31

    You can take credit for inspiring this post, because in the comments about your article on “Suzanne” at


    you included a YouTube video of Neko Case singing the song. So you’re entitled to rest at this waystation that came into existence as a result of what you wrote.


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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