With the imminent release of a new Star Wars film, I couldn’t resist offering up this word. No, it has nothing to do with Sith Lords.
Sith is an archaic word. Like its cousin since, it can act as an adverb, a preposition, or a conjunction. And like since, it has meanings that can involve either time or causation.
To use since as a familiar example, we have:
“Since you’re not interested, I’ll shut up.” (Causation)
“I haven’t smoked a cigarette since I was at school.” (Time)
It seems odd for a word to have developed two such different meanings, but it’s possible to concoct sentences in which the meaning of since is ambiguous:
Since you been gone, since you been gone,
Out of my head, can’t take it.
Has Russ been out of his head during the time since his unnamed lover left him, or as a result of his lover leaving? I’m no expert, but it was probably a bit of both. It’s that sort of construction which likely produced a sort of semantic leak, expanding the meaning of since and sith.
The story with sith is a bit complicated. Here are the bare bones, as far as I can isolate them.
There was a way of forming adverbs in Old English which involved tacking an -s on to the end of a word. This worked pretty much as the more modern -ly adverb ending does now. The -s adverbs were formed so long ago that they’re not immediately evident in modern English—probably the purest current example is the pairing one/once (only a spelling change separates us from that original -s) and its slightly mutated colleagues two/twice and three/thrice.
This pattern was so well established that sometimes Old English would tack an -s on to something that was already an adverb, just for some sort of consistency. And then the two forms might coexist and compete for a while. As a result, two adverbs with the same meaning stumbled out of Old English into Middle English: sithen and sithence.
Sithen gave rise, by contraction, to sith, and then decently faded away during the fifteenth century.* Sithence gave rise, by contraction, to (you guessed it) since; but then it hung around indecently for a few hundred years, only eventually falling into disuse in the seventeenth century.
Sith and sithence he used with connotations of both causation and time:
The Taming of the Shrew Act 1, Scene 1
TRANIO [taking on Lucentio’s identity]: In brief, sir, sith it your pleasure is, and I am tied to be obedient […] I am content to be Lucentio.
Henry IV Part 3 Act 2, Scene 1
WARWICK: I come to tell you things sith then befallen.
All’s Well That Ends Well Act 1, Scene 3
REYNALDO: This she delivered in the most bitter touch of sorrow that e’er I heard virgin exclaim in; which I held my duty speedily to acquaint you withal, sithence in the loss that may happen it concerns you something to know it.
Coriolanus Act 3, Scene 1
CORIOLANUS: Have you informed them sithence?
Since was short-changed, being used only for time:
The Tempest Act 1, Scene 2
PROSPERO: Twelve years since, Miranda, twelve years since, thy father was the Duke of Milan, and a prince of power—
Whereas the archaic phrase since that did the job of indicating causation:
Macbeth Act 4, Scene 3
MACDUFF: When shalt thou see thy wholesome days again, since that the truest issue of thy throne by his own interdiction stands accursed and does blaspheme his breed?
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, there was a period of a century and a half (1520-1670), spanning Shakespeare’s lifetime, in which sith was commonly used for meanings involving causation, while since was restricted to time. This seems like a good and sensible way of dealing with the then-prevailing overabundance of “since” words— but clearly, no-one had informed Shakespeare.
So sith eventually pegged out around 1700, shortly after the departure of sithence, thereby abandoning since to do double semantic duty.
Except there was one last gasp from the corpse, when sith was disinterred in its sense of causation, and pressed into use by the Romantic poets, to lend a pleasing touch of archaism to their writing:
Weep, Lovers, sith Love’s very self doth weep,
And sith the cause for weeping is so great;
That’s exactly the sort of mopey stuff that makes people score you off their party invitation lists, in my opinion.
* In northern Britain sithen spawned another “since” word, syne, which is still with us only in the phrase auld lang syne, from Robert Burns’s poem of the same name. Auld lang syne is literally “old long since”—old times or bygone days.
Note: I’m intrigued that my website spell-checker is happy with the word sith, but not sithence. Either it was trained on a corpus of words taken from the Romantic poets, or it knows about Star Wars. I’m guessing the latter.