Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor

Episode 106: Now or Then?

This week on Grammar Grater, we’re taking a moment to investigate a word that has existed for a very long time in the English language, yet occasionally remains misunderstood. That word is erstwhile. Because the word includes the familiar element while, it’s often misconstrued that erstwhile is a synonym for current. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Current English, however, erstwhile is an adjective that means former.

The word originally appeared in the language as an adverb meaning formerly, and credit is given to English poet Edmund Spenser for coining this word. According to the Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology, Spenser took the archaic word erst, an Old English word meaning former, and combined it with the Modern English word while, a noun meaning a space of time.

Spenser used the word in his 1569 translations of the work of French poet Joachim du Bellay. In a heavenly vision, Bellay—as translated by Spenser—describes (among many other things) his disappointment at the extinguishing of cedar incense, its formerly pleasant smell erased.

O grievous change
That, which erstwhile so pleasant scent did yield
Of sulphur now did breathe corrupted smell.

Fowler’s Modern English Usage sheds further light on the words erst and erstwhile:

"It is always sad to see words of long standing passing into archaism, but these two words ... both began to drop out of regular use at some point in the 19th century, though erstwhile is still not all that infrequent when used as an adjective."

The Oxford English Dictionary indirectly cites Thomas William Hodgson Crosland, a noted journalist and satirist, with the first printed use of erstwhile as an adjective, in Crosland’s 1903 satirical novel The Egregious English. The reason Crosland is indirectly credited is because he published the book under the pseudonym Angus MacNeill. Here’s the excerpt:

"... Mrs. Margarine,...the erstwhile portly mother of daughters ... is young and slim..."

Erstwhile as an adjective seems to continue getting plenty of use. Here’s an example from a March 1993 Chicago Tribune article written by Greg Kot, who’s a rock ’n’ roll writer for that newspaper as well as the co-host of public radio’s rock ‘n’ roll talk show, Sound Opinions. In the article, Kot describes the singer-songwriter Sting, a former member of the band, the Police.

"To go through life with a name like Sting takes a certain amount of swagger, and the erstwhile bassist for the Police can swagger with the best of them."

Sources: Oxford Dictionary of Current English; Oxford English Dictionary; Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology by Robert K. Barnhart, Fowler’s Modern English Usage by RW Burchfield; The Works of Edmund Spenser; and The Egregious English by Angus MacNeill (Thomas William Hodgson Crosland). See also: Ripped: How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music, by Greg Kot.

Music from this episode: "Time and Place" by Lee Moses, "No Time This Time" by The Police

MPR News

Listen Now

Other Radio Streams from MPR

Classical MPR
Radio Heartland