A “Whilst” Landmark

I last wrote on “whilst” in January 2019, after Lynne Murphy had selected it as her U.K.-to-U.S. Word of the Year. I quoted Lynne quoting Nancy Friedman quoting numerous U.S. users of this synonym for “while,” and added some data of my own from Twitter.

But I was moved to return to the word last week, when the New York Times tweeted:

Screen Shot 2020-07-10 at 3.28.35 PM

In my little world, that is a big deal.

I took the opportunity to do a little more “whilst” research. First, I used Google Books Ngram Viewer to look at the frequency with which the word has been used in British and American books. U.S. uses is in red, British in blue.

Screen Shot 2020-07-10 at 3.54.51 PM

It’s a familiar pattern — rough equivalence around 1800; in the nineteenth century, British rise and American decline to the point of nadir; then British decline, and in the 2000s, aka the NOOB Era, American resurgence.

I also revisited a question Lynne had posed in her 2019 post, about whether Americans ever pronounce the word with a short “i,” as if it were spelled “willst.” It’s not an easy question to answer because the word (it would appear) is more often written than spoken in the U.S. But I went back to Youglish, a website originally recommended by Ben Zimmer, which currently purports to have a selection of 663 YouTube videos of Americans saying “whilst.” (I’d say “purports” because on the evidence of looking at a couple of dozen, only about half, going by accent, are Canadian or American; the rest were recorded at American events but with British or Australian speakers.) Anyway, listen to this one at about the 3:00 mark.

You heard it — “willst solving tasks.”

5 responses to “A “Whilst” Landmark

  1. Nathaniel Boden

    The person here also said ‘makked’ instead of ‘marked’ though, which makes me think he simply has a propensity to misspeak. It would be interesting to see other examples to see if this is part of a trend.

  2. I need to go and wash my brain out.

  3. Where did that pronunciation come from? Is it a new thing, or is it how it would have been prounced historically, in say 1800?

  4. Surely that pronunciation is just a mistake? Possibly confused with “willst”, the archaic second-person singular form of will.

  5. I thought it was a computer generated text reader, not a human being.

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