Poetry in motion

Driving into Oxford on the A40 last night, I noticed a couple of those illuminated signs passing on road safety messages.

These messages said “Think! Don’t Phone Whilst Driving.” In this context that “whilst” looked decidedly wrong. Not technically, but in terms of voice. You don’t want a commanding message from the highway authorities to come across like a 19th century poet reading a slim volume of verses to an audience of admirers.

“Whilst” sounds archaic, which is surprising because it is a more recent word than “while”, which most of us would have used in that space. “While” is Old English; “whilst” is late 14th century. “While”, from Indo-European roots, was originally a noun, meaning a portion of time. It retains that use, but it is also a verb (“We whiled away the afternoon watching daytime TV”), a preposition (“While we watched daytime TV , the house burnt down”), an adverb and a conjunction.

“Whilst”, which is first recorded in the Cursor Mundi, the Middle English verse history of the Christian universe, has only the latter two uses. As an adverb, “I ate an ice cream whilst driving”. As a conjunction, “I read a book whilst I drove”.

I think I’ve got that right. Modern grammar is a lot more complicated than the “name of thing”, “doing word”, “describing word” stuff many of us learned in primary school. Almost any attempt to “parse” a sentence is subject to challenge, and this one is no exception. If you ever want an argument, try posting a contribution on one of those message boards where the hardcore grammar nerds hang out.

The main point, though, is that “whilst”, that late arrival, is on its way out.  The Americans don’t really use it at all, and we generally reserve it for situations in which we want to be consciously archaic or courtly. If, for instance, that sign were offering advice on the safe way to ride your velocipede, it wouldn’t be so peculiar.


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