whilom

“Anyways,” said Jess, “he—”

“Oh, please,” Margot interrupted, wincing and setting down her cup. “Please don’t say anyways. Any goes with the singular. Any way.”

I looked at Margot as though she had just denied the law of gravity. “It’s not a plural,” I informed her. “It’s a genitive. The genitive as an active inflection survives now almost exclusively as the possessive, which has in recent centuries had an unetymological apostrophe inserted, but you see it surviving in forms such as names like Johns and Williams and in words such as anyways – meaning ‘of, or by, any way.’ The loss of the s is due to the same reanalysis you’re making, which is not new but is not historical.”

“Well, I don’t like it,” Margot declared. Other people in the coffee shop peered over their papers to see if there was some conflict that might prove entertaining. “We don’t form new words that way, so to heck with the old ones that use that.”

“So you’ll be chucking out woe is me too?” I said, arching eyebrow and relaxing back.

“That doesn’t have any genitive on it!” Margot protested.

“No,” said I, “it’s a retention of the whilom dative. ‘Woe is to me.'”

Whilom!” Jess said. “I love that word. And I love that you said ‘whilom dative.'” She leaned forward and clapped her hands together. “Guess why.”

I paused for just a moment, then smiled. “Because whilom is dative.”

“Yes!” she said gleefully.

“You mean you date yourself by using it,” Margot said drily, then moistened with some coffee. Everyone else in the joint, sniffing the general topic, had gone back into hiding.

“That would be solipsistic,” Jess replied, and turned back to me. “Dative plural.”

“Right, of course, the most consistent case ending in Old English: -um.” Just to prove I was capable of even greater pretentiousness, I started in on Beowulf: “Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum…”

“Not hwæt,” Jess riposted, “hwile. Um.”

“It sounds more ho-hum to me,” Margot interjected.

“Now, don’t talk whilom speaking,” Jess said, smirking. Score one for the Jess. “A while is a time, and whilom – from hwilum – is ‘at times.'”

“But now it really means ‘at past times’ or ‘at a past time,'” I added.

“But why not just use erstwhile?” Margot protested. “It sounds more snappy.”

“You could,” I said, “erst being ‘first,’ just as it is in modern German. But whilom has more the air of sometime, I think, while, of course, bespeaking greater erudition.”

“Or pretentiousness,” Jess added. Hey, how come she gets to be the one who, while knowledgeable, comes across as down-to-earth? I didn’t want to play “good logophile–bad logophile” here.

But I ploughed on in usual fashion. “The tastes are different, too, even aside from the register. Erstwhile has the t stop in the middle, and that ers almost sounds like hitting the brakes before it. It also calls forth first by rhyme as well as the German connection. Sometime starts with a hiss, and calls forth a common word with its own implications – sometimes being used variously for ‘never’ and ‘almost always.’ Whilom is softer and rounder, a glide, a liquid, a nasal; a word to put a baby to sleep. For a while. To while away time. Why not?”

“There can be a voiceless glide in it, too,” Jess pointed out. “If you really say it as a wh word.”

“Which we whilom did,” I added.

“And you do from time to time,” Margot pointed out. “But, say, none of these words can be used just to mean ‘from time to time’ or ‘temporary, at whatever time.'”

“Naw,” I said, “I think we’re stuck with temporary for that. And momentary. And various phrases.” But I looked over at Jess and she had a heck of a glint in her eye. Her hands dived into her purse; there was a sound like a raccoon trying to escape a junkheap avalanche, followed by the prestidigitation of a small notebook, which Jess opened and thrust forth as though it held a pearl picked up off the sidewalk. Which was not too far from the truth.

“It’s obsolete, of course,” she said, her voice taking on a slight hush. “But revive it next time you want to say ‘temporary’ – or should I say ‘time-turning.'” We leaned forward to the lambent bond paper and pronounced the pencilled treasure that described its own transit in the English language: “Whilwendlic.”


Words I have tasted have from time to time been suggested by readers, and I have been remiss in acknowledging those who suggest them. I shall try to make a practice of acknowledging my muses. Today’s word was recommended by Wilson Fowlie.

One response to “whilom

  1. Thank you very much!

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