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May 21, 2001


Fiona Powell wrote:
I am British living in the USA. This leads me down many strange verbal paths, as I often use words in a different way, or encounter new words for familiar objects. One of my most curious encounters has been with the word momentarily. To Americans, this words means 'in a moment'. To me as a Briton, this word means 'for a moment'. This has led to some riotous mix-ups! What was the original meaning of the word? Is it one of those whose meaning was changed in the British Isles and remained true in the USA? Or one whose meaning was lost in the USA? and how do the Canadians use "momentarily" I wonder?

Oh, there are lots of "false friends" between British and American English--terms that you think should mean the same thing in both places, but don't. A few more:
--to table a motion in the US is to put it aside, whereas in the UK it means to put it on the agenda
--if you tell an American cook that his or her meal was "quite good," it's a compliment, although indicating a bit of surprise at the fact; the British cook would be hurt that it was only "quite" good instead of "rather" good
--a play that is a "bomb" is a failure in the US and a success in the UK.

As you went on to point out in your e-mail to us, the sentence "the doctor will be with you momentarily" would be taken by a British English speaker to mean a very short consultation indeed. In fact, the meaning 'only for a moment' is the oldest, from the 16th century, and the meaning 'in a moment' is labeled "North American" in the OED, with a first citation from 1928. However, a sentence such as "Blake was momentarily distracted, and his car slid off the road" still reflects a common, recognized use in the US--in fact, it is arguably still the most common. This 'for a moment' meaning is also the most common in Canada, by the way, although the 'in a moment' meaning is used and recognized.

Actually, I'm not quite convinced that using momentarily for 'in a moment' is entirely original to North America. There is another late 18th-century meaning, 'from moment to moment', that is recorded on both sides of the Atlantic in the 19th century. The treatment of this meaning in various dictionaries shows how fluid the meanings are. The OED chooses a clear example of 'from moment to moment' to illustrate its meaning: "The light was momentarily getting worse." However, Merriam-Webster's Third International Dictionary lumps together the meanings ('at any moment; from moment to moment') and cites the decidedly un-American, un-20th-century Charlotte Brontë: "...momentarily expected his coming." The Century Dictionary (1899) lists the definition "From moment to moment: as, he is momentarily expected" yet gives the example sentence "Why endow the vegetable bird with wings, which nature has made momentarily dependent upon the soil?" (Why indeed? Leave those vegetable birds on the ground where God put 'em.)

Clearly, if major dictionaries couldn't decide how to separate the meanings, it should not be surprising that the idea of 'in a moment' developed from 'moment by moment'. It's also clear that, at least in its definition, The Century Dictionary recognized the 'imminent' sense of momentarily a good thirty years earlier than the first citation in the OED.

Whatever its true origin, this 'in a moment' sense is definitely not common in the UK, as you've found out to your amusement. If you're interested in a little book that can clarify everything from pinafores and jumpers to holidays to shoe sizes, check out Speak American--yes, this is a shameless plug.


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