Wile vs. While

By Maeve Maddox

A reader asks,

Are there two ways to write “while away the hours”? I sometimes see it written as “wile away the hours.” My dictionary gives the meaning to both spellings. Which do you recommend?

wile
Possibly the most common use of wile these days is as a noun qualified by the adjective feminine:

Resurrecting the Girly Girl: The Lost Art of Feminine Wiles

Dating: Feminine wiles attract alpha males

In this context, wiles stands for cunning, amorous tricks that women use to manipulate men.

Wile can have the stronger meaning of a deceitful trick or ruse used to deceive a victim. Wiley Coyote employs wiles in this sense.

The earliest documented use of wile in the OED in the sense of “deceitful trick” is 1154.

Wile as a verb came later (1400s). As a verb, wile means “to lure by means of a magic spell,” “to beguile.”

The OED does have an entry for wile with the meaning “to divert attention pleasantly,” but identifies it as “a substitute for while.” The examples given for its use fall between 1796 and 1880. Merriam-Webster cites an example from the writing of Virginia Woolf: “wile away the long days,” and does not suggest confusion with while.

while
As a noun, while has been in the language since the writing of Beowulf. As a verb meaning “to fill up the time,” its earliest documented use in the OED is from the early 17th century.

The phrase “to while away the time” dates from 1635: “to cause (time) to pass without wearisomeness; to pass or get through (a vacant time), esp. by some idle or trivial occupation.”

As my recommendation is being asked for, I have to say that, Virginia Woolf notwithstanding, “while away the time” is the better choice. Google Ngram Viewer shows “while away” as far more common than “wile away,” although the latter seems to be rising a bit since the late 1980s.

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9 Responses to “Wile vs. While”

  • Nancy Romness

    Modern speakers and writers have a problem with “W” words such as “while” and “wile” (another example: “whale,” “wale,” and “wail”) because there is no longer a distinction made between the way “wh” and “w” are pronounced.
    When I was in first grade, decades ago, in Minnesota, our teacher taught us to pronounce “whale” with an audible breath of air, as if we were blowing out candles. “Wail” was pronounced with a normal “w” sound, voiced with pursed lips but no added breath. In my mind, the two words don’t have exactly the same pronunciation, so it’s unlikely that I would write “wile away the time,” because it just doesn’t *sound* right.
    I wonder if the triumphant National Spelling Bee kids learn separate pronunciations for “wh” and “w”?

  • Dale A. Wood

    In modern German, there is just one common word that begins with “wh”, and it is a loan word from English and Scottish:
    “Whiskey”, after all.
    Even in English, this word is commonly said without the “wh” sound as in {whale, when, white, whose, whup, why} – granted that “whup” is a substandard word in English.
    Dale

  • Rebecca

    By choosing to use that particular spelling, (wile) perhaps Virginia Woolf was making reference to the specific way in which she was spending her time, and this not necessarily being the nature of her deeds but rather the nature of her thoughts.

    After all, she was (and still is) thought of as an “innovator of the English language”. An excerpt from a British Library website page can be found here: http://www.bl.uk/learning/langlit/changlang/writtenword/woolf/dalloway.html

  • dragonwielder

    I find myself thanking Disney once again for introducing me to a word. In “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” Grumpy warns the other dwarfs about women’s “wicked wiles.” I don’t remember ever thinking it was spelled “while,” although it’s possible I did for a while before coming across it in some book or other later on.

    As for using “wile” in whiling away the time…oy vey. I agree with you, Maeve, that “while” is the better choice. It just looks wrong to me.

  • venqax

    …there is no longer a distinction made between the way “wh” and “w” are pronounced.

    AHHHHH!!!! I run screaming, ears bleeding, into the darkness. Yes there is! The WH and W are still distinguished by careful speakers in SAE. The so-called “whine-wine” merger is an unparalleled abomination today, right up there with selling cigarettes and beer to grade schoolers and spitting chaw on someone’s floor. Uncivilized!
    There Is No Prince of Whales! ugh…..

  • venqax

    Wiley Coyote employs wiles in this sense.

    It’s Wile E. Coyote. We are left to wonder what the E stands for.

  • thebluebird11

    @venqax: Thanks for saving me the trouble of correcting to Wile E Coyote. To answer your musing, when the name is pronounced it sounds like Wiley Coyote, and the E is there just for that; it has no other meaning as far as I know. It’s like the old jokes we told as kids, like “Who wrote the book ‘Staying Single’?” “Aisle B. Damned.”

  • Dale A. Wood

    For a long time, I thought that the name of the famous cartoon character was “Bullwinkle T. Moose” as in “Bullwinkle The Moose”.
    I was most mistaken. His name is “Bullwinkle J. Moose”, with the “J” coming from the name of Jay Scott, one of the two creators of the series.
    Likewise, “Rocket J. Squirrel” got his middle initial from Jay Scott.

    Boris Badenov got his surname as a twist on the name of a Russian hero of the early time of the czars – and the hero of an opera about him. Both of those are named “Boris Gudenov”, so the creators of the series just twisted “Boris Good Enough” into “Boris Bad Enough”.

    Sometimes an entire episode was created to climax with a BAD pun. My very favorite on is about “The Ruby Yacht of Omar Khay’yam”.

    Children who did not grow up on Rocky, Bullwinkle, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Elmer Fudd have no way of knowing what they missed.
    I also learned most of what I knew about classical music from “What’s Opera, Doc” and “The Rabbit of Seville”. Then there was music from “Aida” that introduced Mr. Peabody, Sherman, and the Wayback Machine.

    I have a friend in England who said that he and his buddies were crazy about the cartoon tale about who’s the real Robbin Hood: Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck. In the end, Daffy turned out to be “Friar Duck”.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    There was a lot of British exploration of Antarctica that was based close to a place called the “Bay of Whales” – such as Shackleton’s and Scott’s expeditions. So, since it was associate with the British, when I was a boy it was easy to get that one confused with the “Bay of Wales”.
    I don’t think that there is a “Bay of Wales” anywhere in the world, but there might be one.
    I find it to be interesting that there are places in Scotland with the names of Albany and Dunedin, and then there are places with the same names that are in 1) The United States AND 2) Australia or New Zealand. On the other and, the Melbourne in Florida was named for the one located in the State of Victoria, Australia. There was and Australian sailor who named the newer city after his hometown.

    There are cities named “Portland” in England, Maine, Oregon, and New South Wales, and for a long time, the one in N.S.W. had the largest cement factory in all of Australia for a long time. A lot of its output was used in building Canberra and in the growth of Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, and Brisbane.
    D.A.W.

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