“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.

16 responses to ““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.

  3. I don’t have evidence, but I feel like I’ve heard young Americans say it both Lynne’s way and the “correct” way.

  4. I hard ever hear anybody say ‘whilst’ in the UK. I don’t know whether it varies from region to region.

    • 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.

  5. “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.

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  7. 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.

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  9. Little Black Sambo

    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.

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