2018 UK-to-US Word of the Year: whilst

Yesterday I announced the US-to-UK Word of the Year (click for details!), and so today is the turn of the UK-to-US WotY.

The 2018 US-to-UK WotY has been moving to the US for quite a while—but Nancy Friedman (@Fritinancy) makes the case for us recogni{s/z}ing it in 2018. And the word is:

whilst


...that is, a longer version of the conjunction while. Whilst was probably one of the things that led Ben Yagoda to start his Not One-Off Britishisms blog. In a 2011 Lingua Franca post (Lingua Franca, RIP!), he mentions American students using whilst in their writing, then a few months later he started NOOB, with whilst as one of the early entries. I wrote about whilst earlier—though not about it as an import to the US, but as something that was annoying me in my British students' writing (I've been coming to terms with it ever since).

What this year's two WotYs have in common is that the people who nominated them had researched and made good cases for them, rather than just "it sounds American/British to me and I don't like it".  Here's Nancy's nomination for whilst:
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"

Now, this one isn't a Britishism in the sense of 'invented after the British–American divide' when people started talking about Britishisms and British English (as opposed to just English). It went over to America. But it practically died there before the word Britishism had even been invented (1853, if the OED's info is complete), as this chart from the Corpus of Historical American English shows:

Click to embiggen
What I'm interested in knowing is how the young Americans using it are saying it. 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'll repeat what I quoted the first time I wrote about whilst:
Paul Brian's Common Errors in English Usage says: 'Although “whilst” is a perfectly good traditional synonym of “while,” in American usage it is considered pretentious and old-fashioned.'
A lot of people commenting on it in American English these days feel the same way about it. But I suspect that's less true for younger Americans, raised on a diet of Harry Potter. Nevertheless, I'm still not saying it!  Thanks, Nancy for your nomination. Your prize will follow next month!

24 comments

  1. Useful to keep variants in reserve, if only for euphony / poetical reasons.

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  2. When I, an American, was living in the UK back in 2002, I was once with a group of guys of mixed nationality. One of these guys was a pretentious know-it-all from Buckingham.

    One of the other Americans noticed that he said "while", and asked him why he said it "the American way".

    The lad said, "Actually, 'while' is the correct way, and 'whilst' is slang. You would never hear the queen say 'whilst'."

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  3. My (British) sense about "whilst" is also 'pretentious and old-fashioned', maybe linked with the fact (if it is a fact) that it is alien to spontaneous speech.

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  4. To my mind, there is a slight distinction between "while" and "whilst", but I'm not sure I have it right.I don't think you can use "whilst" instead of a "while" that's carrying some sense of "although" (as in the example you quote); but in the sense of simultaneity with a focus on the continuity of the action, you could.

    On the other hand, you definitely can't use "whilst" as a replacement in other senses, such as "erstwhile", or in the regional variation using "while" where the rest of us would say "until".

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    1. There are times when I use "while" and times I use "whilst" but I have no idea if I follow a rule - I just use whichever sounds right to my ear - and trying to analyse it is a sure way to stop me using either word ever again.

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    2. I mainly use 'while', but I think the subconscious rule I use is to do with the following word ... 'whilst dancing' sounds clumsier than 'while dancing', but 'whilst eating' sounds as good as 'while eating'

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  5. I've mostly been hearing "whilst" (in the US) from coworkers of Indian heritage. Of course I've also heard other old-fashioned or obscure words from them as well. "Abscond" come to mind. The only time I've encountered the latter before that was while studying for the SAT.

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    1. Abscond is still used in the UK but really only in a legal setting.

      This will be where, for example, under the Bail Act 1976 a person commits the offence of absconding whilst released on bail (got the new word of the year in there) and there is also a similar offence in the Serious Crime Act 2015.

      Interestingly, when prisoners abscond from prison that isn't what they're actually charged with in the UK. Here it's a common law offence of Escape or Breaking Prison.

      Even the BBC talks about prisoners absconding, eg:-

      "Absconding: Why do prisoners take the risk?"

      https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-27292555

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  6. As a 63-year-old American I've never used "whilst" and wouldn't consider doing so. But given the nutty linguistic habits of young Americans I can't rule out that "whilst" may be enjoying a vogue among them.

    Interestingly, however, in clicking through to read Lynne's original post on *Whilst* I ran across a comment from (the presumably American) KeithD, who noted that in addition to the while/whilst divide there is also the amid/amidst divide and the among/amongst divide. He even noted that apparently there was once an again/against divide, but the "again" that really means "against" seems to have disappeared.

    Anyway, what I find so odd about these additional -st distinctions (amid/amidst and among/amongst) is that, unlike while/whilst, I find I have no preference. That is, I believe I'm just as likely to use one or the other and, in the absence of context, I have no idea which I'd prefer. It may even be that I have distinct preferences about when to use one or the other and that they have yet to penetrate my consciousness.

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    1. Ah, this again/against would be that that has come down to us colloquially as "agin"? As in "I'm agin it." - a folksy way of saying "I'm against it"? Cool. I hadn't realized that "agin" really was ever spellt "again"! Thank-you.

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  7. About the quondam again/against divide, it suddenly occurred to me that the word "agin" (which Merriam-Webster online defines as "dialectal variant of AGAINST") actually preserves this distinction. I assume, though, that as dialectical variants go it's an American one and not a British one.

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    1. I think that 'agin' would be fairly commonly used in BrE in what is called a 'jocular' or rhetorical sense:
      'Ha! don't tell me about all that modern art - I'm agin it'

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    2. Ah, rats. Loads of people already said that. It's okay; I've got out of the habit of reading ALL comments before commenting. Naughty me.

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  8. I always used to think that whilst was old fashioned in the UK as well. My dad used it but I've never used it myself. I know it's common but it sounds pretentious to me.

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  9. For me, the possibility slitty of using whilst is a matter of rhythm. Other things being equal, it takes longer to say whilst than while. So fr me the clause introduced by whilst must be in some way heavier — though even then I might say while.

    * For the most part, it must follow the main clause of the sentence.

    * Although grammatically subordinate, the clause should normally carry the (falling) proclaiming intonation, signalling the main semantic point of the sentence.

    * A verbless clause or one with a non-finite verb form such as a participle is more likely than a finite clause.

    * Whilst is a useful device for slowing down the delivery.

    These considerations seem to be borne out by the examples selected by two dictionaries on their websites (Collins and Oxford). I'll need to do this in a second posting...

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  10. Here are the dictionary examples:

    A man who admires one party whilst making money out of both.
    Then Beverley carried each drink in turn back to our table, whilst Trevor collected her change.
    To take this oath with you present, whilst you defy the First Sister, is unconscionable.
    ‘I explained that whilst I would like to, now was not the right time for me, or for her.’
    ‘Others will rev the engine and light the lights whilst the forming queue shifts on its feet.’
    ‘Once we were word perfect we were taught what we had to do whilst on the altar.’
    ‘I said out loud as I tried to stare a bit more at the map whilst driving at 40 miles an hour.’
    ‘Being in a rush to get out this evening we sat Tommy at the table whilst we were eating and all had a civilised meal.’
    ‘Walking on the road in broad daylight whilst facing the traffic makes me anxious enough.’
    ‘In my infinite wisdom I decided to fill the holes in myself whilst Gary was working.’
    ‘It was exchanged for a very large scar whilst on a skiing holiday in Switzerland.’
    ‘Molly clambers up onto the wall and struts up and down for a moment whilst she gets her balance on the wall.’
    ‘It is impossible not to be moved whilst in the presence of such belief and faith.’
    ‘I had a bag of fish and chips for lunch and ate them whilst sitting by the river.’
    ‘I was sitting in the living room and whilst my friend was in the kitchen her husband made a pass at me.’
    ‘Heroin stays in the system for around a day, whilst cannabis can remain in the body for up to a month.’
    ‘Even when she is unwell, she is able to just step through that and put it aside whilst she is out there.’
    ‘The worst of it though, is the attention I get whilst running on the streets of London.’
    ‘Love on a mental level is friendship, whilst love on a physical level is basically lust.’
    ‘I'd forgotten to mention but I had a bit of an accident with Dads car whilst he was away.’
    ‘My poor dogs and I are confined to one room whilst the window men continue to fit the new windows.’
    ‘Perhaps whilst it is fresh in my mind I might just pick up on the last point of the press briefings.’
    ‘We had to queue and order our meal, standing at a counter, whilst scanning the menu.’


    * Note that these include several with the 'although' sense which Autolycus thought inadmissible.

    * A large minority have whilst followed by a non-finite -ing-form.

    * Three have whilst with no verb at all.

    * Only three have the whilst clause preceding another. My guesses last why are:

    ‘I explained that whilst I would like to, now was not the right time for me, or for her.’
    Perhaps the function of whilst is to slow down and thereby give emphasis.

    ‘I was sitting in the living room and whilst my friend was in the kitchen her husband made a pass at me.’
    Here, is strikes me, the effect is not so much slowing down as encouraging a pause after and.

    ‘Perhaps whilst it is fresh in my mind I might just pick up on the last point of the press briefings.’
    Again, my best guess is that whilst encourages a pause after Perhaps.

    I can't say I necessarily would have chosen whilst over while in all of these sentences, but I think I could so choose

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  11. I can't say I have ever heard anyone where I grew up and live (Alabama) say whilst. Maybe they enjoy more use in certain big, east coast cities like New York, but, glancing at all the previous UK->US words of the year on this blog, I can't say I have ever heard any of them used here. I've heard a guy who grew up in NYC (the Bronx) use whilst, so I wonder if Briticisms tend to start in places like NYC?

    Though, I do get the feeling I've seen someone else use whilst or tried to use whilst myself in a school paper because it sounds fancier than while.

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  13. During a journalism lecture in the UK, our teacher, a longtime newspaper subeditor, was sharing his thoughts on usage. He put up a handy flowchart explaining when to use while/whilst.

    "You are Jane Austen." - Yes - use 'whilst'/No - use 'while'

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  14. I don't remember every hearing/seeing this from US speakers/writers (although it's possible that I saw it online and just assumed that meant the person was British).

    What I have seen recently, though, is an epidemic of "amidst" from Americans in the academic writing I edit.

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  15. I have used whilst more in writing than in speaking, but my writing tends to be more formal-sounding than when I'm just shooting the breeze with someone. I'm more likely to use "while" at the beginning of a sentence and "whilst" as per Mr Crosbie's dictionary examples mentioned above. I've only ever heard it pronounced as while+st (not "willst"). - an American from the mid-atlantic region

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  16. I think whilst is being used in place of whereas, which would explain why it's got that 'a bit more formal' feel.

    E.g. "I saw a giraffe while on my way to the shops" works but "I saw a giraffe whilst on my way to the shops" sounds odd.

    But "Seeing a giraffe is improbable, whilst seeing a pug is not" or "Seeing seeing a giraffe is improbable, while seeing a pug is not" and "Seeing seeing a giraffe is improbable, whereas seeing a pug is not" all seem to work for me.

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  17. In the 60s, whilst was an old-time New England term used by the old country people with strong Maine accents. As such it was frowned upon by our teachers who did their best to stamp it out in their charges. So funny the young American hipsters are picking it up again.

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  18. As a Scot of a certain generation, I cringe when I see “whilst” in print. To paraphrase one of my English teachers: while for prose, whilst for poetry - but only if thou dost not liketh modern poetry.

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AmE = American English
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