Dear Word Detective: I suppose changes to the meanings of words are inevitable, if sometimes irritating. Am I correct that the word “momentarily” used to just mean “lasting for a moment?” And that the medium of television has corrupted it through interminable misuse of it as “in a moment” as in “we’ll be returning to Baywatch momentarily”? Of course, with the number of commercials during a typical broadcast, perhaps they DO mean it in the sense that I always understood it. — Ed Stevens.
My, what an interesting question. And we’ll be back to answer it momentarily, right after these messages.
Scared you, didn’t I? Ordinarily, I’d be the last one to defend television’s frequently, uh, creative use of the English language, but in this case I’ll have to turn the tube loose, because the use of “momentarily” to mean “in a moment” is neither wrong nor new. “Momentarily” can mean either “in a moment” or, as you remember it, “for a moment.” Both forms are correct, and have been for a long, long time. It is true that the earliest example of “momentarily,” dating to 1654, uses the word in the “for a moment” sense, but both senses have been used for centuries, although both were fairly rare until the early 20th century. Instead, people more often used the now-extinct form “momently,” which could mean “in a moment,” “for a moment,” and, just to confuse things a bit more, “from moment to moment” or “constantly,” as in “We waited at the bus stop, expecting the bus momently.”
When “momentarily” took over from “momently” in popular usage in the early 20th century, the “for a moment” sense of “momentarily” was the first to appear, but the “in a moment” sense was hot on its heels. The “constantly” sense of “momently” didn’t really make the jump to “momentarily,” for which we should all be grateful.
So both senses of “momentarily” are correct, and, fortunately, it’s usually fairly easy to judge which meaning is meant by the context. Of course, in the case of television, I agree with your suspicion that they mean “momentarily” in both senses — they will be back in a moment, but for just a moment before the next commercial appears.