G-d Save the Queen’s English

Firstly, I’d like to thank you on a generally fantastic and informative paper. We all look forward to it each week.

Also, I’ve been wondering what happened to my most beloved Prime column: “Going Through a Phrase,” by Mordechai Schiller. His columns were my favourite part of the magazine and I have really been missing them. Will they be coming back to your pages any time soon?

In addition, for when they do reappear perhaps, I was noticing something strange about a couple of words in the English language and was wondering if Mr. Schiller could shed some light on it. There are some words that sometimes appear with an “st” at the end. These include words like amid/amidst, among/amongst, while/whilst.

But, with or without the -st ending, there doesn’t seem to be a change in its definition or grammatical use to the average reader.

Thank you so much,

S. Spitzer, London

Mordechai Schiller replies:

Thank you for your kind words. As Mark Twain wrote, “The happy phrasing of a compliment is one of the rarest of human gifts and the happy delivery of it another.”

Frankly, I also miss seeing my column regularly. You’ll be happy to know that the column is alive and well (most recently, “It’s a Guy Thing,” May 6 edition of Prime.) Alas, part of the collateral damage of the coronavirus crisis has been the virus’ takeover of the news cycle. I have submitted a demand for free tickets in compensation for my column repeatedly getting bumped. Wish me luck.

As for your question, English is one of my favorite languages. But some of your fellow Londoners might consider my own Brooklynese, Yiddish-laced American dialect an alien tongue. However, even the King’s Englishman, H.W. Fowler, saw little distinction between among and amongst. Fowler’s successor, the American lexicographer Bryan Garner (Garner’s Modern English Usage) wrote, “Most forms ending in -st, such as whilst and amidst, are archaisms in American English. Amongst is no exception.”

Lynne Murphy, an “American who dares to teach English Language and Linguistics at a British university,” said, “When I first started marking … essays … in the U.K., I would correct students who used the word whilst instead of while, as in Whilst the students could write ‘while’, they tend to write ‘whilst’. … I quickly learned, however, that whilst is not a punishable offense in British English.”

In The Prodigal Tongue, Murphy, quoted Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, about the Earl of Marchmont visiting a shop in London. The shopkeeper, who did not recognize the Earl, said, “I suppose, sir, you are an American.”

“Why so, sir?” said his lordship.

“Because, sir, you speak neither English nor Scotch, but something different from both, which I conclude is the language of America.”

The Earl was not American. But Dizzy Dean was. After Dean retired from baseball, he became a popular announcer, known for mangling the English language.

One interviewer complained, “Don’t you know the King’s English?”

Dean replied, “Sure I know; and so’s the Queen.”