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Opinion on 'whilst'

Posted by GPP on July 29, 2003

In Reply to: Opinion on 'whilst' posted by R. Berg on July 28, 2003

: : : : : : : : : Is there any logic at all to the use of the word 'whilst'? It's often used in place of "while" in print in the UK. However, I don't recall hearing it much. Is it archaic? I know it's a contaction, but of what?

: : : : : : : : Not a contraction. Fowler 2nd says no difference in usage. Merriam-Webster 2nd says for "amidst": "The 's' is an adverbial genitive ending; the 't' is excrescent, as in 'whilst'."

: : : : : : : Onions 1934 Shorter OED: Whilst, adv., conj. (prep.) late ME. [f. Whiles + t as in 'amongst', 'amidst'.] 1.a.In advb phr. 'the w.' (obs. or rare arch.), also as simple adv. (obs. exc. dial.): During that time, meanwhile. b.'The w.', conj. phr.: During the time that, while. Obs. or rare arch. late ME. 2.conj.=While conj. 1,b,c. late ME. 3.transf.=While conj. 2a,b,c 1548. 4.conj. Till, until. Obs. exc. dial. 1520.

: : : : : : 'Excrescent': Phonol. Of a sound in a word, growing out of the the action of the speech organs in forming neighboring sounds...

: : : : : : "'transf.' and 'fig.'=in transferred and figurative use."

: : : : : Aside from these archaisms, here's a clue to current usage, from MW2: "'amongst' "... often for euphony preferred to 'among' before a vowel; as, no one amongst us."

: : : : : Also, I sense a subtle difference in meaning between 'amid' vs 'amidst', and 'among' vs 'amongst'. MW2 gives "'amidst' In or into the midst or middle of; surrounded or encompassed by; among. "This fair tree amidst the garden."--Milton; Amidst the splendor [sic] and festivity of a court."--Macaulay. MW2 also gives for 'amongst' "now [used] most frequently in senses 3 and 5 (of 'among', i.e.: 3. Belonging in the same group with; making part of the number of; in the number or class of; [etc.]. 5. Done or shared by the generality of; commonly by or through the aggregate of; in dispersion through; [etc.]")

: : : : : Amid, amidst, among, and amongst, all seem to have rather a spatial quality to them, while (!) while and whilst have more of a temporal quality; I'm not sure how the distinctions made above amongst these four 'a' words might carry over to 'while' vs 'whilst'.

: : : : M-W 1942 Webster's Dictionary of Synonyms: "1 'Among' (or 'amongst'), 'amidst' (or 'amid') agree in denoting surrounded or encompassed by. 'Among', however, implies a mingling or intermixture with distinct or separable objects; as, "A certain man ... fell among thieves" (Luke x. 30); a minister should live among the people he serves. Hence it is regularly followed by a plural or a collective noun. 'Amidst' [n.b., preferred here to 'amid'] literally means in the midst or middle of, hence that which surrounds may or may not consist of distinct or separable objects; [etc.] When both 'among' and 'amidst' are applicable to the same objects, 'among' regards them in their individual, 'amidst' in their collective, aspect. Thus Milton describes the seraph Abdiel as "among the faithless, faithful only he," having in mind the other angels as individual rebels; but when he adds, "From amidst them forth he passed," he is thinking of the angels rather as a collective body. 2. Between, betwixt."

: : : : (Does anyone want to get started on 'betwixt'?)

: : : Let me take one last shot at this. It's been nagging at me that all of these '-st' words -- whilst, amongst, amidst, betwixt -- have a common flavor or imagery, quite apart from their being archaic, that differentiates them from their modern forms, and that flavor or imagery isn't really addressed in any of the sources and explications cited above. To the extent that I can get a handle on it, I think I perceive these '-st' words as pertaining to a circumscribed or delimited set of objects or occurrences, whereas in the modern forms I sense an open-endedness to the set or group. Thus it seemed more natural for me to say, above, "amongst these four 'a' words" rather than the alternative "among these four [etc]"; but I would say "among these words [etc]", that is, among the universe of such words. Is this perception shared by anyone, or is it wholly idiosyncratic? I can't see having either 'whilst' or 'betwixt' come naturally to me under any circumstances, but both, as well as 'amidst', seem to share in that same concept of delimitation of the set. And what other such words are there besides these four? There must be more, but my mind has gone blank.

: : Thank you for clearing up what the 'st' form is. I thought that was very interesting. As for the flavour of 'whilst', I think in British English is carries a sense of formality and seems to be meant to convey authority. It is used in business correspondence and on signs informing the public of this, that or the other thing in banks. return policies and official announcements.

: : Personally, I don't think it works because it is such a departure from spoken language. It seems like puffing up the prose to sound authoritative because the author doesn't feel confident in his authority to say what he has to say. But this may be my own prejudice. Oddly, I have no issue with amongst or amidst. 'Betwixt' just seems romantic.

: To me, a native U.S. English speaker, "whilst" and "amidst" just sound archaic, poetic, and British, like "hast" and "wouldst." Do U.K. speakers ever use these words in speech?

No, "hast" and "wouldst" are different--these are verbs that go with the 'familiar' form of the 2nd person singular (you): thee, thou, thy, etc, analogous to French "tu" or German "du". "Thee" and its forms and verbs are all obsolete in English, except for use of "thee" only, by Friends/Quakers (sort of like a secret gang handshake). But I don't know whether the etymology of this '-st' ending is the same as for these other prepositions.