Monday, December 13, 2010

A Word That Falls Just Short of Being, Um, Self-Defining

Last week, I asked for a good “U” word, and a commenter came through with one that had escaped my notice so far.
umquhile (UM-kwile) — adverb: some time ago, formerly. adjective: the former.
I say umquhile is almost self-defining because it’s archaic and therefore is itself former. However, it’s also Scottish and I’m not sure it would be accurate to think of it ever being used frequently by non-Scottish English speakers or even necessarily by Scots. (World Wide Words notes that Frances Trollope dubbed umquhile obsolete back in 1832 and that uses in the twentieth century have pretty much all been in “self-consciously archaic context[s].”) However, as far as weird words go, I’m in favor: it has a “Q,” it has a spelling that seems to defy pronunciation and it has a rather ordinary, practical meaning. That’s a triple win in my book. (And in this guy’s, too, seeing as how one of his Wonderful Wordiness blog’s two entries focuses solely on umquhile.)

According to Wiktionary, umquhile has a “Q”-less and therefore less interesting form, umwhile, and both spellings use a descendant of the Old English ymbe, meaning “around, about.” It still exists in basically the same form in Dutch (om, German (um) and a few others, and it’s related to the Latin prefix ambi-, meaning both and present in English words like ambivalent and ambisexual. The second part, meanwhile, comes from the Old English hwile, meaning “a period of time.”

Previous strange and wonderful words:
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