“Whilst” Breaks Through

I always look forward to this time of year because, among other things, Lynne Murphy announces two Words of the Year at her Separated by a Common Language blog: U.S. to U.K. and U.K. to U.S. For 2018, the former is “Mainstream Media,” or MSM.

More to the interest of this blog, the U.K.-to-U.S. word is “whilst.” She graciously mentions that I wrote about the word (which is, of course, a substitute for the traditionally American “while”) in a NOOBs post back in 2011, shortly after I started the blog. But there have been significant developments since then. Lynne quotes an email from another friend of NOOBs, Nancy Friedman:

While standard dictionaries still mark it as “chiefly British,” it’s on the rise among Smart Young Things here in the U.S. who think it sounds “cool” or “refined.” Here’s an example from The Baffler (published in New York), April 6, 2018: “You see, while the violence of financial capitalism and the ever-widening chasm of economic inequality might have something to do with why poor folks get themselves into a tizzy and take to the streets, the true catalyst is that they don’t feel respected whilst being systematically eliminated by the police state, they don’t feel respected whilst performing wage slavery.” This humor piece in McSweeney’s (based in San Francisco), from April 2017, is egalitarian: it uses “while” and “whilst” twice each. And here’s the singer Lana Del Rey— born in Los Angeles, residing in Lake Placid, New York — writing on Instagram in May 2017: “I had complex feelings about spending the weekend dancing whilst watching tensions w North Korea mount.” (Quoted in Rolling Stone)

More “whilst”s from Americans:

Lisa Franklin, writer and comedian from New York: “people keep commenting on those comics whilst happily ignoring my jokes about The Flash.”

Halle Kiefer, “comedy writer out of Astoria, New York”: a surreally long, minutely detailed anecdote about a young Madonna auditioning with the Queen of Soul’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” whilst living in a crack den”

I’ll add that it’s not just the elite who are saying “whilst.” I used my new favorite TweetDeck tool, the location search, to find “whilst” users within 200 kilometers of a randomly selected U.S. city, St. Louis, and found plenty, who appear to be young things, though not necessarily notably smart (for British readers: clever).

screen shot 2019-01-07 at 3.26.05 pm

Interestingly, Lynne is interested in the pronunciation of the word. She writes:

Before I started hearing it in British English, I would have read it aloud as ‘willst’. (Dictionaries would have told me otherwise, but I don’t tend to look up pronunciations when I’m reading.) It is pronounced like while with a st on the end. In the US, it seems to mostly have a life in print (does anyone have any nice clips of audio clips of it in American mouths?), whereas in the UK, you hear it too.

I have the sense that I have heard it a fair amount here, always pronounced in the proper, long-“i” way. But I may be kidding myself. I searched the archives of National Public Radio for on-air utterances of the word, and found 246 of them. But they were all spoken by British people going back through 2015, at which point I gave up. Does anyone have evidence that an American has ever said “whilst,” and if so how she or he pronounced it?

Update: On the pronunciation issue, Ben Zimmer has directed me to a remarkable site called Youglish; it allows you to search YouTube videos for specific words or phrases, and narrow them down to U.S., U.K., or Australian speakers. He sent me a link for U.S. “whilst,” which has 364 videos. The categorizing isn’t perfect–the first clip is from a Canadian, and the second and third appear to be from an Australian and a Brit, respectively–but the speaker in the fourth video is from Minnesota, and I listened to enough true-blue Americans to establish that we do indeed say “whilst,” and that we pronounce it the same way the British do.

20 thoughts on ““Whilst” Breaks Through

  1. This American previously married to a Brit never, ever said “whilst”. There are other words and terms I did end up adopting (washing up), but not that one

  2. Weird, since ‘whilst’ has been going out of fashion in Australia for years. And rightly so – it’s useless word: one more letter than ‘while’ and means precisely the same thing.

    1. But, by that token, the same could be said for “an”. Exactly the same as “a” and one letter longer.

    1. I’m not sure if I use it in speech, but I certainly use it in writing, usually without thinking about it. There are places where I find “whilst” instinctively sounds right in my head where “while” doesn’t. Born in London, grew up in the north-east, and now living in Surrey. In my mid-sixties.

  3. “Whilst” is rightly regarded as archaic in the UK and is now only used by Jacob Rees-Mogg in parliamentary questions. According to the OED it derives from “whiles” meaning ‘against’ and belongs in the same group of ex-words as “otherwhiles” and “somewhiles”, and deserves the same fate.

      1. I’ve just seen this and don’t think Sadiq Khan would take too kindly to being put in the same bracket as JRM just because he uses a common word like “whilst”.

      2. All this reminds me of the old joke about the person answering the phone. “To whom do you wish to speak?” they ask. “I must have a wrong number,” comes the reply. “Nobody I know uses the word ‘whom'”.

  4. I itch a bit when people use the word in contemporary writing but not when I hear it spoken. Work that one out! I have an old grammar book of 1879 that doesn’t have a single ‘whilst’ but states that ‘while’ is an old noun meaning ‘time’, to which a substantive clause beginning with ‘that’ was in apposition.The while that…The omission of ‘that’ gave to ‘while’ a conjunctive force. Shakespeare uses ‘whilst’ and the noun form ‘the whilst’ as in ” I’ll call Sir Toby the whilst”. People who use ‘whilst’ now seem to do it because they feel it adds weight. Maybe that’s the reason the ‘t’ was added in the first place.

  5. Notwithstanding the prescriptivist remarks in some of these posts about “whilst”, I agree with Paul Dormer and Bren that it just pops out when it feels like it; there must be a subtle distinction between the two, of which some people are aware so that instinctively they know when to use one or the other.

  6. I’m surprised that nobody has yet pointed out that there is a real difference in meaning between “whilst” and “while”, even if it is far from universally respected. It’s not just a matter of ‘elegant variation’.

    I didn’t know that “whilst” was descended from a word meaning “against”, as Nigel reports above, but that is exactly how I use it. It is used to conjoin two statements that are against each other, in the sense that knowing that one was true would normally make you expect the other to be false. You are pointing out that, nevertheless, they are both true.

    “While”, on the other hand, has no such sense of opposition – it just states that some events or states happen or exist at the same time. The meaning is purely temporal; there is no implied comment about epistemology. (It is interesting that Sammy tells us that it derives from a word meaning “time”.) “Whilst” has no such requirement of simultaneity – it would be fine to say “Whilst he came from the most deprived background imaginable, he eventually rose to be the leading poet of his generation.”

    In BrE, “while” has substantially displaced “whilst”. I admit that I sometimes use “while” where, on reflection, I would concede that “whilst” would have been better. But never the other way around! I may be wrong, but my impression is that Brits never use “whilst” without there being an underlying sense of opposition.

    It appears that in AmE, “while” completely displaced “whilst”, but “whilst” is now returning as just a fancy alternative to “while”. This results in many apparent errors, to British ears. Both the “whilst”s in the piece from the Baffler should be “while”. (While the “while” could, just about, have been “whilst”). Similarly, the one “whilst” in the Lana del Rey quote and both in the McSweeny piece would be “while”s if written by a Brit. Lisa Franklin’s usage, however, is fine. My first reaction to the Kiefer quote was that it was another mistake, but then I realised that the use of “whilst” could be interpreted as a very neat way of pointing out the incongruity of Madonna’s situation. Among the tweets, dvader518’s usage is fine, t y l e r and Colin K. should have stuck to “while”, and there’s no way to be sure about Martin Garrix as we don’t have enough of the sentence.

    As I was writing that last sentence, it occurred to me how best to explain to Americans how these non-standard American uses of “whilst” sound to Brits like Jacob Rees-Mogg, Sadiq Khan and me, who actually use the word with its established meaning. The “as” near the end of the previous paragraph has displaced the word “because”, while that at the start of this paragraph has not – “because” there would be quite wrong. Imagine for the moment that the displacement of “because” by “as” in BrE had gone to completion. Suppose some Brits then heard Americans saying “because” in some places where they said “as”, and decided that “because” was just elegant variation for “as”. When they then wrote sentences like the first sentence of this paragraph with “because” rather than “as”, your reaction would be similar to my reaction to many American uses of “whilst”. There would be an improper implication of an epistemological or causative connection, where only simultaneity was intended.

    1. The more I look at the Kiefer quote, the more I like it. It has the quality of a subtle pun. It reads correctly whether the word is given the established meaning of “whilst” or that of “while”.

  7. ‘I’m surprised that nobody has yet pointed out that there is a real difference in meaning between “whilst” and “while”‘ – that would be because there isn’t, any more than there is a difference between amid and amidst, or among and amongst.

    “I may be wrong, but my impression is that Brits never use “whilst” without there being an underlying sense of opposition.” Yes, you’re wrong.

    Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage makes it clear that there is utterly no difference in meaning between “while” and “whilst”. The style guide of The (London) Times actually bans “whilst”, and insists on “while”.

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