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shameless pleading

Meantime / Meanwhile

In the meantime, in between time, we’re getting really sick of peanut butter.

Dear Word Detective: I have a few questions about the word “meantime”? What exactly is the “meantime”? Similarly, what is the difference between “meantime” and “meanwhile”? I noticed that some authors (specifically, Emerson) use “meantime” in situations where I would use “meanwhile.” — Josh.

Sheesh. Classy crowd we’ve got around here. Citations from Emerson, with other presumably serious authors hovering in the shadows? You know what I think of when someone asks about “meanwhile”? The interstitial caption in old westerns reading “Meanwhile, back at the ranch….” And if I turn my attention to “meantime,” my mental iTunes (more of an eight-track cassette player, actually) starts playing the refrain “In the meantime / in between time / ain’t we got fun?” from the old 1920s song “Ain’t We Got Fun?” Incidentally, I had never known (Thanks, Wikipedia!) that Ain’t We Got Fun?, written by Richard A. Whiting, Raymond B. Egan and Gus Kahn, was cited by George Orwell as an expression of working-class discontent after World War I. Come to think of it, the lyrics do have a definite edge.

The semantic distinction between “meanwhile” and “meantime” is easy to define: there isn’t one. The two words are synonyms, both meaning, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), “The time intervening between one particular period or event and another” or “During the intervening time between one particular period or event and another; while or until a particular event occurs; at the same time; for the present.” Both can be used as either a noun (“In the meantime, let’s set the table so we’ll be ready when guests arrive”) or an adverb (“Mean time, his Affairs at home went upside down,” Jonathan Swift, 1704). “Meantime” has also been used, rarely, as an adjective to mean “temporary” (“The lost sheep’s meantime amusements,” Robert Browning, 1873).

The “mean” in “meantime” and “meanwhile” is the adjective “mean” meaning “occurring between two points in time,” based on the noun “mean,” middle point, from the Latin “medianus,” in the middle. (This is a separate word from the other adjective “mean” in the sense of “nasty,” which comes from Germanic roots meaning “common, low-quality.” And the verb “to mean” in the sense of “to connote” or “to intend” comes from yet other roots meaning “to tell or say.”) The “while” in “meanwhile” is the noun form of the word, meaning “a period of time,” thus serving the same function as the “time” in “meantime.” We also use “while,” of course, as an adverb meaning “at the same time” (“While the cat’s away, the mice will file a restraining order”).

Meanwhile, back at your question, your sense that there is a difference in usage between “meanwhile” and “meantime” is not just your imagination at play. Some usage authorities maintain that “meantime” is best used as a noun (“In the meantime, wipe the beer off your desk and put out that fire”) and “meanwhile” ought to be used as an adverb (“Meanwhile, Billy-Bob was dating Bobbie’s sister’s daughter Billie, which gave everyone a headache”). That distinction is a fair description of how the words are most commonly used today. But, as the eminently sane Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage (available free through Google Books) notes, “The evidence shows that ‘meantime’ and ‘meanwhile’ have been used interchangeably as nouns since the 14th century and as adverbs since the 16th century.” So while different authors may have different preferences, there’s no logical difference between the words and, more importantly, no history of writers consistently observing such a distinction.

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