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Pronounced /ˈʌmhwaɪl/Help with pronunciation

I’ve previously written about whilom, one of three words, I said then, with closely related meanings of formerly or previously, the others being erstwhile and quondam. There is a fourth, as correspondent Mark Harvey instantly pointed out: umquhile. As you can tell from its alternative spelling of umwhile, the qu is silent. It’s a useful word for Scrabble, but not one to be found in everyday prose.

It’s from Old English ymb hwíle, which progressively changed to umbewhitle and umwhile or umquhile. The last of these is the Scots spelling, which is why it so frequently turns up in the works of Sir Walter Scott. One appearance was in The Heart of Midlothian of 1818: “Above the inner entrance hung, and had hung, for many years, the mouldering hatchment, which announced that umquhile Laurence Dumbie of Dumbiedikes had been gathered to his fathers in Newbattle kirkyard”. Another was in The Monastery (1820): “The Lady of the umquhile Walter de Avenel was in very weak health in the Tower of Glendearg”.

The Trollopes were among the last active wielders of umquhile. Frances Trollope used it in 1832 in her Domestic Manners of the Americans (she didn’t like them) and her son Anthony employed it in The Three Clerks in 1857: “She had been the widow of Jonathan Golightly, Esq., umquhile sheriff of the city of London, and stockbroker.”

The word had pretty much vanished from the language by 1900. It has been recorded a few times since, but always in historical or self-consciously archaic contexts. Even the writers of fantasy fiction, those busy resurrectors of antique words, have passed it by.

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Page created 01 Jul 2006; Last updated 27 Aug 2016