“Whilst”

While. Apparently has an appeal similar to that of amongst and amidst. But yo, I have found a new tool, or should I say toy. Since starting Not One-Off Britishisms, I have relied on Google Ngram, which shows the relative popularity, over time, of a word or phrase in a variety of databases (British English, American English, English, etc.). It’s great, but has the drawback of being limited to published books, which, having gone through a formidable editorial process, are not the earliest adopters of new words and phrases and linguistic trends. I’ve just discovered Google Trends, which shows two trends: the popularity of a word in web searches and, more useful for my purposes, its use in Google News sites. Google News, which can be localized to the U.S. or any other country, includes not only newspapers and magazines, but many web sites. Hence its ear is closer to the ground than Ngram–more “demotic,” as my English Department colleagues would say.

The results for whilst are instructive. Ngram shows a steady decline in American English from about 1810 till 1990 (my provisional date for the beginning of the not one-off-Britishisms trend!) and from then till now a flat line. But Google Trends shows a steady increase starting at the beginning of 2008.

[S]ince many of us do our talking whilst driving, might they consider coming up with a mobile phone that only works in the house, while we’re not spewing emissions along with our hot air? [Matt Richtel, New York Times “Bits” blog, August 22, 2007)/Whilst scouring my mental vault of classroom distractions this past week, I recalled a favorite past time of my youth. Before Facebook and Minecraft, when Netscape Navigator was the browser of choice among proto-hipsters, Cartoon-Network.com ruled my leisure. (Daily Princeonian, blog. April 4, 2011)

13 responses to ““Whilst”

  1. George Simonson

    Ben — It seems clear to me that many writers who use “whilst” in the modern era are doing so consciously as a style flourish, indeed generally to be amusing (although undoubtedly there are many among them who are simply pompous and don’t know it — i.e., they’re NOT aiming to be amusing). So to me, the word is basically fine. And yes, NGRAM is a gem.

  2. Colin Mongardi

    The links in the second paragraph both show Ngram results

  3. In 1989, I began buying imported Doctor Who Magazine back issues from a local bookstore (ca. 1985-1992). Many issues contained the word “whilst.” Meanwhile, I didn’t notice it ever being used in British TV shows, not even Blackadder. I came to the conclusion that it was a wonkish hypercorrection, or as George Simonson says, an amusing style choice. For an American to use “whilst,” I would perceive it only as a deliberate affectation.

    • I’m not sure I agree on the wonkish hypercorrection issue. My undergraduate students, who are definitely not affected, almost always use “amongst” and “amidst” instead of the st-less American versions, and let out with a whilst now and then.

  4. In England, as far as I can see, “while/whilst” and “among/amongst” are used indifferently. I use one or the other without any conscious choice, and can’t detect any rule. “Amid”, however, sounds a little poetic for ordinary speech, and its use would be a matter of deliberate choice, whereas “amidst” attracts no attention.

  5. It’s a word Madonna and Britney would’ve used back when they were affecting English accents.

  6. Plenty of younger Americans are actually using “whilst” because they think it is more correct or formal. So, it is hypercorrection. Maybe not amongst your grad students, for whom it’s a “posh” affectation. I am 99% certain this particular NOOB is spreading among teens and young adults in the US almost entirely because of Wikipedia. Innumerable British editors of that site also feel it is somehow more formal, and use it incessantly, even when writing about decidedly prosaic topics like football (soccer) and punk bands. Because of the WP’s “varieties of English” guideline (WP:ENGVAR for short), most other editors are afraid to change it to “while”. I’m not among them. (Note that was not “amongst”.) The -st is simply a redundant archaism, and can be safely dropped in any register in any dialect of the English.

    • For what it’s worth, Google gives 133,000 hits for “whilst” on wikipedia.org, and 8.7 million for “while”. That’s a ratio of 65:1

      • @dw: That demonstrates that plenty of British people also know the -st is simply a colloquial archaism that has survived in a few UK regional dialects and died out in the rest of them, including throughout most of the Commonwealth.

  7. …language. (Cor blimey, I s’pose I ought to sort of proofread before queuing up me comments, guv. I actually used to talk like that – I learned to read and write in Oxfordshire before moving to New Mexico.)

  8. In London, when a bus pauses en route as a driver ends his/her shift and we wait for a replacement, the dot matrix display and recorded announcement is ‘Bus will wait here whilst drivers are changed’. It has joined ‘Mind the Gap’ as a distinctive phrase. (And is that a peculiarly British use of ‘mind’??)

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