December 17th, 2012

Let’s talk while we wile away the time

So folks, is it “while away the time” or “wile away the time”?

I had to look it up, and when I did I was surprised to find that although both are used, the more proper spelling is “while” (even though in the title of this post I used the other way of writing it, in order to get both spellings in):

The OED has instances of while away going back to the early 18th century. The phrase employs a now archaic sense of while—namely, to fill up the time…[B]ecause we’re not used to seeing while used as a verb, it’s easy to assume that wile away is the correct phrase.

It sure is. In fact, I always have. Instead:

But wile is mainly a noun—meaning (1) trickery, cunning; (2) a disarming or seductive manner; (3) or a trick intended to deceive—and it’s occasionally used as a verb meaning to influence by wile. None of these definitions has anything to do with idly passing time, so wile away doesn’t make logical sense.

So now I know.

And now you know.

And if you’re interested in other burning questions such as crummy vs.crumby, or log in vs. login, see this and this.

17 Responses to “Let’s talk while we wile away the time”

  1. mizpants Says:

    I always thought it was “wile” too, and it makes intuitive sense, as in “let’s have an entertaining conversation and trick time into passing quickly.” Or something like that!
    “While” away the time makes no sense to me at all.

  2. Mrs Whatsit Says:

    Huh. I didn’t realize that “while away” was a particularly unusual expression and haven’t seen it confused with “wile,” which I associate with Wily Coyote and sneakiness in general. It seems to me that “while away” shows up, at least, in quite a few songs — for instance the scarecrow in “The Wizard of Oz” singing, “I could while away the hours, conferrin’ with the flowers . . . if I only had a brain.”

    But while we’re at it, has anyone noticed the increasing prevalence of “Waa-lah!” and similar such spellings from folks who apparently don’t realize that the word is “Voila”?

  3. neo-neocon Says:

    Mrs Whatsit: it’s not an unusual expression. But it’s often heard rather than seen written down (for example, how many people have read the words to that “Wizard of Oz” song rather than merely heard them?). And even when a person does read it, that doesn’t mean the person notices the spelling.

    Remember also that both “wile” and “while” are actual English words used in other contexts, and neither usual usage fits this particular context exactly. As the article says, the use of “while” as a verb is archaic, except for this particular phrase.

  4. chuck Says:

    It never occurred to me that “While away the time” was an odd usage of while, I just assumed from context that while was a verb. Now let’s while away some time dealing with “Toe the line”. I’m amazed at how many write that as “Tow the line”.

  5. Mrs Whatsit Says:

    To me, “while” is associated with time so it seems an easy leap to a verb meaning “spend time.” But I read a LOT of old-fashioned books so may have simply seen it more often than others. And of course neo is right that hearing a song is not helpful in discerning spelling.

    So let’s talk about “reigning in” and “reining in.” The first is more and more prevalent, the second is correct — it’s a reference to reining in a horse.

    And then there’s “hone in” vs. “home in.”

  6. vanderleun Says:

    If I fall for these wily wiles you can just call me Wile E. Coyote.

  7. Jim Nicholas Says:

    My Bible for English Usage (Fowler: Modern English Usage, second edition) states that . . . ‘ “while” is now the standard spelling. But “wile” was formerly not uncommon; it was used by Dickens.’

  8. neo-neocon Says:

    Jim Nicholas: if it’s good enough for Dickens, it’s good enough for me.

  9. IGotBupkis, Legally Defined Cyberbully in All 57 States Says:

    }}} And if you’re interested in other burning questions such as crummy vs.crumby, or log in vs. login, see this and this.

    …And you know what the usual response is to Grammar Nazis when they point out things like this…
    ‘Is it “fuck off” or “fuck orf”‘?



  10. Geoffrey Britain Says:

    It is while, not wile. “while’ is associated with time and thus, “While away the time” is correct, just as one would say, “what shall we do, while we wait for the car to be repaired?” Conversely, “‘wile’ we wait for the car”…is clearly incorrect because wile refers to cunning, as in animal like cunning.

    Only the English would claim ‘crumby’ to be a word. It’s login, not log in. Login describes a specific action, ‘log in’ is incomplete.

    “while we’re at it, has anyone noticed the increasing prevalence of “Waa-lah!” and similar such spellings from folks who apparently don’t realize that the word is “Voila”?”

    Once ‘scholars’ included ‘ain’t’ in the dictionary, the decline of Western civilization was assured, it’s been downhill all the way since then. A typical college graduate of today couldn’t pass 10th grade in the high school standards of even the 60’s.

  11. Sam L. Says:

    Remember, the pursuer of the roadrunner is not
    While E. Coyote. Might as well be, since his wiles are clearly substandard.

  12. OlderandWheezier Says:

    I try not to be one of the grammar police, but once in a while (as opposed to wile) I can’t help playing the prig. Just took someone to task this afternoon for typing that someone had “taken over the reigns.”

  13. rickl Says:

    One of my pet peeves is All right vs. alright.

    I blame The Who.

  14. Jewel Says:

    Alright, maybe this one will pique your interest:

    Just desserts, or just deserts?

    Just deserts, for the record.

  15. nora Says:

    Okay, is it “hone in” or “home in” when you’re drilling down to the essence of something?

  16. Geoffrey Britain Says:

    Mrs Whatsit,

    “reigning in” and “reining in.”
    Both are dependent upon context and thus either may be correct.

    ‘reigning’ is the present participle of reign (interrogative Verb)

    As in: History tells us that England’s Elizabeth I was “reigning in” the 16th century.

    While “reining in” as you suggest, might be done to a horse or we would all hope, might be done to Obama by the Republicans.

    Correct though ‘desert'(s) has two meanings
    1.A barren or desolate area
    2.The state or fact of deserving reward or punishment. Most often used in the plural.

    A dessert is best consumed in moderation.

    Similarly, “hone in” or “home in” are dependent upon context. If you’re actively engaged in ‘drilling down’ to the essence of something, ‘hone in’ would apply. If you’re a passive participant with external circumstance increasingly revealing the essence of something, ‘home in’ would apply. The difference is subtle enough that they’re easily confused.

    PS: No I’m not an English major, in fact that was far from my best subject. Just the beneficiary of the educational system of the 50 & 60’s…

  17. Ben W Says:

    I’ve never found “while away the time” to be strange. The word “while” was originally a noun meaning “period of time”, as still in “wait a while”, etc. The conjunction is secondary. Hence “while” as a verb meaning “spend time” isn’t so strange.

    BTW some speakers in the U.S. still pronounce the h in wh-, and would have no confusion here.

    Dickens’ spelling with “wile” is a phonetic spelling of a sort that would be considered an error today. But back then, spelling wasn’t quite so fixed.

    (Speakers in Southern England have been confusing w- and wh- for centuries, hence Dickens’ “mistake”. The American dialects that distinguish the two owe this feature to Scotland, where the sounds were never confused and mostly still aren’t.)

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