Heretofore-unseen: the return of moribund legalese

Every so often, I see some English which strikes me as being odd or unusual. This time it is the compound heretofore-unseen, which looks as if it escaped from the deserved obscurity of a US laywer’s boilerplate drawer.

According to the OED, heretofore resulted from the compounding of the adverb here with tofore, derived from the Old English tóforan, meaning previously or in front of. Its official pronunciation is also worth noting, with the o of -to- being an unstressed schwa sound, giving the whole word a distinctive rhythm.

It has three uses:

  • adverbially, meaning before now, or formerly,
  • as an adjective, meaning former or previous,
  • as a noun, meaning past time.

The first two are quite old, dating back to 1350 and 1491 respectively, although in all three senses the word appears to have flourished during the nineteenth century. One quotation given is perhaps worth repeating, from R Venning’s Mercies Memorial (1656-7):
“Heretofore-mercies are grounds to look for hereafter-mercies.”

Since its heyday in the nineteenth century, frequency of usage indicated by Google Ngrams has fallen steadily, to the point in 2000 where it had all but died out of British English, and was almost as rare in American English.

However since 2000 it is enjoying something of a revival, particularly in the rather odd and sometimes hyphenated compound heretofore-unseen. You will not find this in Google Ngrams, but a conventional Google search on the compound now returns over 58,000 hits. These appear to be almost all from 2009 onwards, and mainly 2012 onwards.

My own brush with the compound was in a blog posting about the Apple Watch here, but it has popped up, with or without the hyphen, in various of the social media, a couple of books on computing, and most notably on some old images of Steve Jobs announced as “Heretofore Unseen Photos Of Steve Jobs” (which may have been the origin for its use in my index case).

The first published use of the compound that I can see is by Joseph P McMenamin, in the opening paragraph of “A New Look at a Blue-Green Alga”, in The American Biology Teacher volume 31, number 2, page 102, in 1969, where he wrote:
“Electron microscopy has enabled biologists to take a new look at the blue-green algae. Electron micrographs of cell sections are revealing details of cell structure heretofore unseen.”

Since then it has appeared sporadically, mainly in American English, and usually referring to photos or images. It cropped up in quoted text of forensic origin in a linguistics book in 1994, being quoted by Robert F Barsky in his Constructing a Productive Other: Discourse Theory and the Convention Refuge Hearing.

It also appeared in a BBC News story dated 24 November 1998, in a quotation from an astronomer involved in the Hubble Space Telescope, who was reported as saying “Hubble’s deep field views revealed a large, heretofore unseen fraction of the universe and opened it up to interpretation and understanding.”

A 1999 book by Tim Hollis, Dixie before Disney, suddenly uses it twice in a single paragraph. It also crops up in the headline of a newspaper story by Jill Lawless in the Philippine Daily Inquirer dated 15 November 2003.

Inevitably the greatest number of search hits come from after 2010, when you might be forgiven for thinking that it had become relatively common.

It will be interesting to see whether this heretofore little-known and little-loved phrase continues to flourish, or peters back into obscurity.