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?
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.
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.