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Pronounced /ˈʌmhwaɪl/Help with pronunciation

Last November this section featured 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 q is silent. It’s a nice word for Scrabble, but not one to be found in everyday prose.

It’s from the Old English ymb hwíle, which progressively changed to umbewhitle and hence to umwhile or umquhile. The last of these is the Scots spelling, which is why it so often 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 Fair Maid of Perth (1828): “The Lady of the umquhile Walter de Avenel was in very weak health in the Tower of Glendearg”.

As early as 1832, Frances Trollope was noting it as obsolete, in her Domestic Manners of the Americans (she didn’t like them). It has been recorded a few times in the twentieth century, but always in a self-consciously archaic context.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 1 Jul. 2006.

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 1 July 2006.