Jeremy Butterfield

Making words work for you

Mean while or meanwhile? In the mean while or in the meanwhile? One word or two?

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Short answer: one word. To write two words will nowadays be considered a mistake. But it wasn’t always so…

meanwhile_in_Scotland

(I think that should be “Meanwhile, in Scotland”, don’t you?)

Rules iz rules…but rules can change.

To write several analogous pairs (a while, any more, etc.) as one word or two is a matter of convention, and conventions can, and do, change over time.1

I was forcefully reminded of this while reading Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796), a Gothic classic that keeps making me visualize a sort of Ken Russell – if not Hammer horror – film before its time, or “avant la lettre”, if I wish to be flowery, which I often do.

The narrator falls into the hands of murderous outlaws who want to drug him – and a baroness who has also fallen into their clutches – by giving them a spiked drink (or a sleeping draught, in more trad language).

In the mean while our host [Baptiste, a bandit] had drawn the cork, and, filling two of the goblets, offered them to the lady and myself. She at first made some objections, but the instances of Baptiste were so urgent, that she was obliged to comply. Fearing to excite suspicion, I hesitated not to take the goblet presented to me. By its smell and colour, I guessed it to be champagne; but some grains of powder floating upon the top convinced me that it was not unadulterated.”

(Fret not: the hero does manage to avoid drinking the potion, and then feigns sleep. Tales of his derring-do fill at least another hundred pages.)

Note that “In the mean while” at the start of the extract.

Some history…

As the revised (2001) OED entry notes: “The one-word form (first found in the 16th cent.) has become steadily more frequent since the early 19th cent., and has been the standard form since the end of the 19th cent.”

Modern meanwhile has simply obliterated the space that manifests its etymology. It is, quite simply, a combination of “mean” the adjective and “while” the noun. That adjectival meaning is defined by the OED as “Intermediate in time; coming or occurring between two points of time or two events” and gave rise to the now obsolete adverbs  the mean season and mean space, both meaning, um…, “meanwhile.”

Mean[ ]while itself, is first recorded as a noun from some time before 1375:

Boþe partiȝes…made hem alle merie in þe mene while.
(Both parties…all made merry in the meanwhile.)

William of Palerne.

and as an adverb in the first English-Latin dictionary, the Promptorium Parvulorum (“Storehouse for Children” or “Little Egbert’s Crib Sheet”) of 1440:

Mene whyle, interim.

Annoyingly, the OED doesn’t present a single-word example from the sixteenth century: its first “solid” example is:

Upon this subject I will in my next Number make an appeal… In the meanwhile let me pride myself a little on the circumstance [etc.].

Cobbett’s Weekly Polit. Reg. 33 101, 1818.


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In the Bard’s work too…

Shakespeare used the word(s), e.g.

Let the lawes of Rome determine all,
Meane while am I possest of that is mine.

Titus Andronicus i. i. 405, 1594.

but much more often he used (in the) meantime, as when Portia says:

For never shall you lie by Portia’s side
With an unquiet soul. You shall have gold
To pay the petty debt twenty times over:
When it is paid, bring your true friend along.
My maid Nerissa and myself meantime
Will live as maids and widows. Come, away!
For you shall hence upon your wedding-day:

Merchant of Venice, iii. ii. 318 ff., 1600.

Modern usage follows Shakespeare. In the GloWbE corpus (Global Web-based English), in the meantime is 20 times more frequent than in the meanwhile.

meanwhile-in-funny-pictures

Two poetic “meanwhiles”

And, as I was writing this, the last words of Auden’s Friday’s Child, in memory of the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, floated into my head:

Meanwhile, a silence on the cross,
As dead as we shall ever be,
Speaks of some total gain or loss,
And you and I are free

To guess from the insulted face
Just what Appearances He saves
By suffering in a public place
A death reserved for slaves.

And then a “virtual” colleague made this comment, which I had to add:

“One of my favourite lines from the great Flann O’Brien, where the narrator in The Third Policeman describes his mother: ‘She was always making tea to pass the time, and singing snatches of old songs to pass the meantime.'”


1Witness the kerfuffle* when, in 2013, Associated Press (AP) changed its ruling about “under way” being two words in most contexts to “underway” in all contexts. Editors can be an OCDish lot – after all, part of their job consists in weeding out and correcting things that most people don’t even notice – and one such editor tweeted “I can’t be the only one who is outraged that AP is changing its style from ‘under way’ to ‘underway,’ am I?”

Copy-editing, it could be argued, is a profession whose motto invalidates the old Latin motto de minimis non est curandum (“Don’t sweat the small stuff” or, literally, “It is not to be worried about trivia”).

Whether that be true or not, conventions iz conventions, and the fact that most people abide by them makes them worth sticking to.

* An originally Scottish word, spelt curfuffle.

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Author: Jeremy Butterfield

Editor of Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Writer, wordsmith, copywriter, copy-editor and lover of words. I provide editing, web copywriting, and marketing copywriting services in the Central Belt of Scotland, including Stirling, Glasgow, Edinburgh and surrounding areas, as well as throughout the UK. You can find me on Twitter @JezzB2.

4 thoughts on “Mean while or meanwhile? In the mean while or in the meanwhile? One word or two?

  1. One of my favourite lines from the great Flann O’Brien, where the narrator in The Third Policeman describes his mother: “She was always making tea to pass the time, and singing snatches of old songs to pass the meantime.”

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  2. This is a comment arising from the opening picture, rather than from the text, so perhaps irrelevant.

    The “Meanwhile in Scotland” picture reminded me of a somewhat similar picture where someone clearly intended to be English was going in through a door marked M which was beside a door marked F. This picture was on the wall of a bar in a Gaelic speaking area, and M stood for Mnathan (women) and F stood for Fir (men). (Not “Mnathan uasal” and “Fir uasal”, Ladies and Gentlemen – the facilities were available to ordinary mortals as well as to gentlefolk). Of course in Gaelic speaking areas doors might be marked with M and F but if they were each door would also have either the appropriate figure or the appropraite one of the words “Ladies” and “Gentlemen” because we are far too polite to want to confuse or embarrass our foreign visitors.
    When I lived near Edinburgh, which is very much an English speaking place (Gaelic is fairly rare in Edinburgh) I knew a few pubs in the city that had their toilet doors marked M and F which was (I was told by one or two landlords) an attempt to bring to the attention of some English tourists (by administering an embarrassing surprise) the fact that Scotland is not a district of England; but even in Edinburgh any English tourists who didn’t appear to deserve to be surprised would be informed of the meanings of that M and that F before they made a mistake.

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  3. Thanks for the comment, Tom, and for reading the blog. I’m trying very hard – but failing – to remember where I last used a loo with Gaelic M and F, but it might have been near Loch Tay. Anyway, there too there must have been a “subtitle” because I remember thinking “Fir” must be related to Latin “Vir”. I’m wondering what poor English tourists might do to “deserve” to be surprised – perhaps a question best left unanswered, ;-). Thanks again.

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