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While versus wile

Q From Craig Miller: Some friends are currently debating whether it should be wile or while in phrases like we whiled (or wiled) away the time. A Google search produces 699 hits for wile and 6,290 for while but no information as to which is correct. Can you help with an answer?

A Historically and formally, while is the right answer. But I must qualify that because wile is not only found today but has been used in the past by some good writers. As a result, some British dictionaries allow wile as a variant, and several American ones I have here offer it as valid without any comment.

I can see why you had trouble looking it up. The construction isn’t mentioned often in style guides: the only one I can find that does so is the Second Edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage (of 1965), which says that while the time away is now the standard form but that wile was formerly not uncommon.

A little delving into word history might be helpful to make that comment clearer. Writers in the early sixteenth century borrowed the conjunction while and turned it into a verb. The first known user of it in the modern sense of passing time leisurely or idly was Francis Quarles, in a poem of 1635 called Emblems: “Nor do I beg this slender inch, to while The time away, or falsely to beguile My thoughts with joy”.

So far, so good. The problem began at the end of the following century, when writers started to spell it wile instead. The OED’s editors suggested this might have been because people were thinking of beguile the time, a related phrase that goes back to Shakespeare. Users may have been thinking of the sense of wile that means deceit or deception, so that the idea in to wile away time was to steal time illicitly from one's proper duties. Subscriber Steve Doerr wrote in elaboration: “The French expression tromper le temps and the Latin decipere tempus both mean to ‘deceive’ time in the same way”.

The first recorded user of the wile form was Fanny Burney, in her novel Camilla of 1796: “He persuaded his sisters, therefore, to walk out with him, to wile away at once expectation and retrospection”. In the following century, it was used by writers such as Sir Walter Scott, Charles Dickens and Rider Haggard. Rather later, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had Sherlock Holmes say, in The Adventure of the Second Stain: “Yes; I will wile away the morning at Godolphin Street with our friends of the regular establishment”.

With that phalanx of worthies in the background, it’s hard for modern works on language to assert that wile is absolutely wrong. But my advice would be to stick with while, since you can’t be faulted spelling it that way.

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Page created 19 Jul 2003