Oft, Often, and Oftentimes

By Mark Nichol

What is the difference between often and oftentimes, and is oft a word? The short answers are that there is no difference, and yes.

These three adverbs all stem from the Old English (and Middle English) term oft, meaning “frequently.” The longer variants developed in the 1300s. Just as often is an extended alteration of oft (likely invented to ease the transition to a word beginning with a vowel), oftentimes derived from ofttimes.

That last word is all but unknown in Modern English, and even oft is rare but survives in a saying from William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, “The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones.” It is also used in combination with verbs in constructions such as oft-praised and oft-told.

Often and oftentimes are interchangeable, but the more archaic-sounding latter word is less economical and has an obsolete taint equivalent to that of the superfluous -st ending in words such as amidst and amongst or the extraneous first syllable of upon. (Interestingly, against differs from its cousins amidst and amongst in that the truncated form again is not a variation but a word with a distinct meaning.)

The antonym seldom, meaning “rarely,” which also comes from Old English, originally had a compound -times form as well (though it was hyphenated), and seldhweanne (“seldwhen”) and seldsiene (“seldseen”) were part of the word-hoard, though only the latter word evolved into a later form (seldom-seen). (The variant seld-shown appeared in Shakespeare.)

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10 Responses to “Oft, Often, and Oftentimes”

  • venqax

    Oh, yeah! That reminds me. Would someone please tell the British that the superfluous -st ending is an obsolete-sounding taint? The “amongsts” and — worst of all– “whilsts” are enough to makest ust want to boxst them betwixt the ears.

  • Sally Bahner

    Oh, venqax. I SO hear you! I hear the pompous “amongst” too often here and it makes me want to scream!

  • Mark Nichol

    And while you’re at it, cc: that memo to the American population—many of us use amongst and amidst (but, curiously, not whilst) in speaking and writing. Meanwhile (not meanwhilst), as mentioned in the post, against is a legitimate word distinct from again—and let us preserve the quaint-sounding but useful midst and unbeknownst. (See this post for more details about the excrescent -st inflection.)

  • Steve Campbell

    Any discussion of the word “often” inevitably recalls the hilarious bit of dialog from Act 1 of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Pirates of Penzance.” It plays on the fact that the British pronounce “often” (the ‘t’ is silent) and “orphan” (the ‘r’ becomes ‘aw’) identically. The wordplay is as good as anything ever done by Abbott & Costello or The Three Stooges. You can read it at http://www.gilbertandsullivanarchive.org/pirates/web_op/pirates13d.html .

  • Dale A. Wood

    To Mr. Nichol:
    “…and let us preserve the quaint-sounding but useful midst…”
    What makes it “quaint-sounding”? How else would you say, “In the midst of a heavy fog, I was jumped by several gangsters and…”?
    “I was in the midst of a snowstorm when I fell down and broke my wrist.”?
    It does seems to me that the word “midst” is most useful in references to meteorological conditions, darkness, poor breathing conditions, and the like. “I was in the midst of a panic attack does sound quaint.”
    Now, we can change the proverbial poor beginning of a novel or a play: “It was in the midst of a dark and stormy night. A shot rang out, a maid screamed…”

  • Dale A. Wood

    Maybe we ought to make a (semiflexible) rule forbidding the ending “st” on multisyllabic words. (“Against” would be one of the few exceptions.) Thus, these words would be all right: best, blest, cast, chest, dust, east, fast, fist, ghost, guest, hast (antique), host, jest, last, lest, list, lost, lust, midst, mist, most, must, nest, NIST, past, pest, post, quest, rest, roast, rust, test, toast, tryst, vest, west, zest…

    “Amongst, amidst, becamst, becomst, formst, goest, namest, rollst, sayest, smelst,…” would be strictly forbidden.

    “Ast” has got to go. No “I ast my mother if I could stay out late.”

  • Dale A. Wood

    I was just reminded that In German, as in English, the words for “rest” and “rust” are very similar in spelling and in sound. Playing with this, there is a proverb in German that translates as “If I rest, then I will rust.” We don’t have quite the same thing in English.
    Also, Shakespeare liked the word “blest”. Note THE MERCANT OF VENICE, referring to mercy: “It is twice blest: by he who giveth and he who receiveth” (Portia, Antonio’s wife, one of my favorite characters in any play or novel.)

  • Jerry Ketcherside

    All those “…st”s are really cool. I use them infrequently when I’m feeling eloquent!

    Let’s get to serious stuff! It must be absolutely forbidden to use “till” for the contraction “’til”! What has farming (tilling the ground) to do with time?

  • venqax

    @Jerry Ketcherside: Till is not the same word as until or its contraction, ’til. Till is a distinct word that has the same meaning as until (though they do have a common root) but a separate development, and it just happens to be homographic with the word for the farming activity.

  • venqax

    @Dale A. Wood: As much as it rings of comparing apples and orangutans, there does seem to be a convenient correlation there. But a stronger one might be prohibiting -st when directly attached to another consonant, as opposed to a vowel. So -est and -ist make the grade, but not -lst or -gst or -dst. “Against”, of course, is now an entirely different word from “again” so it doesn’t need defending on the among/amognst grounds.

    @Mark Nichol: …cc: that memo to the American population—many of us use amongst…. Yes, hence the memo. And stop it! hehe.

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