« previous post | next post »

Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of last week I was at the University of Maryland, giving the first edition of the newly-endowed Baggett Lectures. The first of the three lectures was on The Linguistic Culture Wars, and most of its content will be familiar to regular LL readers. But in the course of preparing it, I found a few new things that may be of interest. For example, I decided to use the now-available web resources to look for the origins of momentarily in the sense "at any moment; in a moment; soon". This came up because I quoted Dick Cavett's NYT Opinionator column "It's Only Language", 2/4/2007, as an instance of left-wing authoritarian moralist peeving.

Cavett wrote:

When the flight attendant would say, “We will be landing in Chicago momentarily,” I used to enjoy replying, “Will there be time to get off?” But I see the forces of darkness have prevailed, and this and many wrong uses are now deemed acceptable by the alleged guardians of our language, the too-quickly supine dictionary makers. Are they afraid of being judged “not with it”? What ever happened to, “Everybody does it don’t make it right”?

I chose the quotation because it's an especially clear example of the sentiment that usage, no matter how widespread and how authoritative, doesn't outweigh the peever's sense that a certain usage is somehow morally wrong. But having chosen the passage, I felt in duty bound to check the implication that the evil sense of momentarily is a recent development, limited to ill-educated flight attendants and similar corporate drudges.

The OED's first citation for momentarily in the sense of "at any moment; in a moment; soon" is from 1869:

1869 A. J. Wilson Vashti xi. 149   Robert is bringing her home as carefully as possible, and you may expect them momentarily.

1928 Sun (Baltimore) 13 Aug. 1/2   Arrests were expected momentarily as police continued their investigation.

1951 W. C. Williams Paterson iv. §iii,   The husband is still living but his death is momentarily expected.

MWDEU observes that

The example given is this:

During the early part of the morning, I momentarily expected his coming; he was not in the frequent habit of entering the schoolroom, but … I had the impression that he was sure to visit it that day.
________-Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre, 1847

A Google Books search for "[expect] momentarily" turns up a fair number of earlier examples:

Presently afterwards the whole horizon was covered over with clouds, the storm was expected momentarily to burst.
________[The Lady’s Magazine, London 1798]

… the shrieks of the poor sufferers, crying for assistance; the terror of those […] who expected momentarily to share the same fate …
________[The Scots Magazine and Edinburgh Literary Miscellany, 1806]

He expected momentarily to be joined by the ninth corps …
________[Napier, History of the War in the Peninsula, 1831]

… some presents bespoken for the emir, and intended for the ransom of our brethren, were also expected momentarily from France.
________[Dublin Review, London 1842]

Other contexts are fairly common as well:

… liable as England will be to be herself momentarily invaded, any attempt to reconquer Ireland must be wholly out of the question …
________[Cobbett’s Political Register, London 1807]

Others may yet be struggling hard, poor, weak, diseased bantlings, waiting momentarily and mournfully their final dissolution.
________[The Universalist Union, New York 1843]

They were half dead with fear; momentarily apprehending outrage and murder.
________[History of France, London 1845]

In contemporary American English (based on a sample of COCA), uses of momentarily remain >95% the “briefly” sense. (A similar sample of the British National Corpus has an ever higher proportion, supporting the OED's note that the "soon" sense is now "Chiefly N. Amer.") But the “soon” sense has been a solid contextually-restricted usage for more than two centuries, on both sides of the Atlantic –- and English has somehow survived this polysemy.

The Baggett Lectures are named after their funder, David M. Baggett, who got a B.S./B.A. in Computer Science and Linguistics at UMD in 1992, and among other post-graduate accomplishments, was the co-developer of the Crash Bandicoot series for the Sony Playstation.

David next co-founded ITA Software with two other MIT AI Lab graduates. ITA Software has developed the first new airfare pricing and shopping software in decades, and has licensed the technology to most major US and several international airlines. ITA Software's technology also powers Orbitz, one of the top three online travel portals — as well as many other industry websites.

He's now involved with a new startup,, which

pulls together all your personal and work email accounts in one place. By providing simple tools to manage your inbox, Inky helps you get things done.


  1. Antariksh Bothale said,

    November 20, 2011 @ 12:03 am

    Interestingly, I posted on my Linguistics blog about exactly the same thing two weeks ago. I was wondering if it was an Indian English thing, since I'd never encountered the 'in a moment' sense before that. In my case, the research was triggered by a Google Groups message: "Your message will appear on [Group Name] momentarily."

    Here's the link to the full post:

  2. SeanH said,

    November 20, 2011 @ 2:11 am

    'I shall deal with the matter momentarily,' he said. It was a good word. It always made people hesitate. They were never quite sure whether he meant he'd deal with it now, or just deal with it briefly. And no-one ever dared ask.

    Terry Pratchett, Guards! Guards!

  3. John Walden said,

    November 20, 2011 @ 4:57 am

    Isn't there some of the same difficulty with "in a moment" ? Certainly in these contexts, it doesn't mean "soon":

    "his brothers gave him such a tiny scrap that the starving youth finished it in a moment and besought them for a second bit"

    " It was not Westheath's best brew, but he finished it in a moment"

    "Frederick saw it in a moment. Directly he knew the Rochefort expedition had returned empty-handed, he had sent off to London a suggest"

    "The bright perspective mightily cheered one drooping soldier. At
    the first clang of the portcullis his eyes brightened and his
    temple flushed; and when the herald came back with battle in his
    eye he saw it in a moment, and for the first time this many days
    cried, "Courage, tout le monde, le diable est mort.""

    (Andrew Heath, Yellow book of Fairy Tales; Lois Greiman, The Princess and her Pirate, 2003; Julian Stafford Corbett, The Seven Years War,1907; Charles Reade, The Cloister and The Hearth,1861. All found with Google Books)

    Tellingly, these are all in the past tense and some are a bit archaic, either really or on purpose. I wonder if "I'll do it in a moment" could be interpreted as "I'll do it very quickly" in contemporary English.

    "I'll read it in a moment next week"

  4. maidhc said,

    November 20, 2011 @ 6:00 am

    "Momently" is cool. If we could sort out which means "after a moment" and which means "for a moment", we would be getting somewhere. Not that I'm expecting anything…

  5. Ian Tindale said,

    November 20, 2011 @ 6:38 am

    Also, this is complicated by the engineering sense of the usage of the word “momentary”. Many switches, in the electronics field, are described as “momentary action”, which means that they don’t switch from off to on and stay on once actuated, but they switch from off to on then off again when you actuate it and then let go. Microswitches, for example, are typically momentary action switches. The meaning of momentary in this context is therefore “brief — as brief as possible and no longer”.

    Similarly, elsewhere in science, you’ll find the flight characteristics of a specific butterfly might be described as “pausing momentarily to alight on a flower or leaf” or something similar — e.g: “…we caught a glimpse of a very flighty Cardinal (Argynnis pandora) that stopped momentarily to feed on Thistle flowers…” from

    I wouldn’t normally distinguish “momentary” from “momentarily”, considering them both to mean (and only to mean) “as brief as is required and no longer”, whenever that might happen to be, at some undefined distant or even theoretical point in the future, if at all.

  6. Gunnar H said,

    November 20, 2011 @ 6:49 am

    The different uses of "momentarily" have a reverse parallel in the word "shortly."

    I have noticed that German-speakers have a tendency to say (in English) things like, "I will shortly explain my work" when they mean that they will spend a short time explaining it. This sounds wrong to my ears. For the intended sense I would use "briefly," reserving "shortly" for "in a short time, soon."

    However, dictionaries don't agree, OED giving several senses (only one of them archaic) that fit the Teutonic tendency:

    a. Briefly, concisely, in few words.
    †b. In short, ‘to speak briefly’.
    4. For a short time. rare.

    I have to admit that whatever OED (and Merriam-Webster, etc.) says, this remains a peeve of mine.

  7. Gav said,

    November 20, 2011 @ 8:21 am

    A local expression is "I'll do that now in a minute" which means something like "some time, when I get around to it".

  8. GeorgeW said,

    November 20, 2011 @ 8:36 am

    I (Southern AmE) understand both meanings in context, but I don't think I have ever used 'momentarily' to mean 'briefly.'

    I would also use 'shortly' with the same 'very-soon' meaning but I think it is a little less formal than 'momentarily.'

  9. Jayarava said,

    November 20, 2011 @ 9:57 am

    Reginald D Hunter (A southern American comedian living in the UK) tells a nice anecdote.

    An English woman asked him "what do you know about Tommy Cooper?"
    RDH shrugs and replies "He dead".

    The English woman says: "I must be terribly British and correct your grammar. I think it's 'he died.'"

    RDH: "At first he died… now he dead".

    So, the plane will be landing momentarily, then it will be landed, and it will stay landed while you deplane. Yes?

  10. Jayarava said,

    November 20, 2011 @ 9:58 am

    "I have to admit that whatever OED (and Merriam-Webster, etc.) says, this remains a peeve of mine."

    This sounds better taken out of context. :-)

  11. peterv said,

    November 20, 2011 @ 10:12 am

    I am reminded of the Southern African English "just now" and "now now", with the former meaning "in a moment", and the latter meaning "immediately". I always found this confusing since "just now" in the other varieties of English I know usually refers to the past, rather than to the future.

  12. Rod Johnson said,

    November 20, 2011 @ 10:50 am

    "Presently" has some of the same issues. I wonder if there's some Gricean thing that happens with time adverbs that causes them to drift in this direction.

  13. LDavidH said,

    November 20, 2011 @ 11:17 am

    @Rod Johnson: Yes, as an ESL speaker I was very confused when I first came across "presently" meaning "eventually, after a while". Very common in C.S. Lewis, one of my favourite authors.

  14. Geoff Nunberg said,

    November 20, 2011 @ 11:30 am

    I mentioned that remark of Cavett's in a 2007 "Fresh Air" piece called "The Regressive Urge," but I was interested less in what it said about the rule than what it revealed about the psychopathology of modern purism:

    Actually, I have trouble imagining that that exchange ever took place. How exactly would it have gone? Cavett makes his little witticism, and the flight attendant gives him this look that says "excuse me?," and then he has to explain, "Oh, I was merely venturing a joking reference to the prescriptive grammarians' insistence that the adverb momentarily should be used only to signify 'for a moment' rather than 'in a moment.'" I can't see it — my guess is that if Cavett actually replied to that announcement, it was sotto voce to an imaginary companion. But the gag tells better this way. As [my eighth-grade English teacher] Mrs. Bosch understood full well, the point of sarcasm isn't just to humiliate the clueless — it's also for the benefit of an audience who are in on the joke. That's who teenagers are appealing to with their eye-rolls, as if they were glancing over to an invisible homey in the other corner of the room.

  15. Mr Fnortner said,

    November 20, 2011 @ 11:38 am

    In the expression "(right) now in a minute", the irony signals a measurable delay without the speaker having to overtly disappoint the listener with bad news or the lack of immediate action. Context and one's relationship with the speaker will tell whether the promised act will occur soon, later, or at all.

  16. DavidP said,

    November 20, 2011 @ 11:40 am

    My peeve with "momentarily" is that it sounds like an attempt to be fancy. "In a moment" is shorter, as is "shortly."

  17. David Donnell said,

    November 20, 2011 @ 1:19 pm

    As peterv said above, 'just now' is the South African English way of saying 'in a moment'. Also, South Africans I've known have told me they consider 'momentarily' an Americanism.

  18. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 20, 2011 @ 1:20 pm

    @Geoff Nunberg: In my limited experience, the flight attendant's announcement of a momentary landing comes over the P. A., so unless Mr. Cavett had shouted, his "reply" wouldn't have reached the attendant's ears.

    And of course, the humorous "the prescriptive grammarians' insistence" is you, not him. I might imagine him saying, "Just kidding—but you know, 'momentarily' really means 'for a moment', not 'in a moment'."

    @DavidP: Yes, I can't imagine why they say "momentarily" when "shortly" and "soon" are concise, understood by pretty much all native speakers, and uncontroversial.

  19. hector said,

    November 20, 2011 @ 1:56 pm

    I'm mystified as to why you call this "left-wing authoritarian moralist peeving." It seems to me language peeves cross all political boundaries because they are not, essentially, political, but personal in nature.

    Years ago, I had a peeve about the sudden appearance of "orientate" in everyday speech, replacing the previous "orient." It sounded unnecessarily pompous to me, and I would complain about it to whomever was unfortunate enough to have to listen. There was no political content in this peeve; it just bugged the hell out of me. Anyway, after a decade or so, the fad passed, and I can't remember the last time I heard "orientate" in speech.

    As to "momentarily," "in a little while" is, for me, its primary meaning.

  20. Alan said,

    November 20, 2011 @ 2:06 pm

    Mark, is there any difference between the language peeves of left-wing authoritarian moralists and right-wing authoritarian moralists? Do they tend to peeve about different kinds of usage?

  21. Linda said,

    November 20, 2011 @ 2:32 pm

    If I'm reading the OED correctly, unless you are referring to facing East specifically, orient and orientating both go back to the mid 1840s

  22. Ellen K. said,

    November 20, 2011 @ 3:07 pm

    For example, I decided to use the now-available web resources to look for the origins of momentarily in the sense "at any moment; in a moment; soon"

    When I read that, early in the initial post, I was like, "there's another meaning of it?". I couldn't conjure up any other meaning of momentarily at all. And reading the anecdote from Cavett, I didn't understand it. I could not understand what he was thinking "momentarily" meant.

    Thus, I was surprised to read that, "In contemporary American English (based on a sample of COCA), uses of momentarily remain >95% the “briefly” sense.".

    And yet, when I read "momentarily" used that way, I have no problem at all with it.

    I think for me, basically, when talking about the past, or generalizing (talking about something habitual), "momentarily" means "briefly". When talking about something that has not happened yet (or had not happened yet), it means "very soon". Although, there may also be a word placement issue.

  23. Coby Lubliner said,

    November 20, 2011 @ 5:41 pm

    When I hear something like “We will be landing in Chicago momentarily,” my reaction is similar to Cavett's: I think that the landing will be momentary, i.e. brief. But "We expect momentarily to be landing in Chicago" means to me that the expectation, not the landing, will be brief, that is, I hear "momentarily" modifying "expect," not "land," and this interpretation is consistent with the "briefly" sense. All the cited instances, except the one from Cobbett's, can also be interpreted in this way. Maybe the "soon" sense developed from the "brief expectation" sense, by substituting a future copula for "expect."

  24. GeorgeW said,

    November 20, 2011 @ 6:55 pm

    @Jayarava: "So, the plane will be landing momentarily, then it will be landed, and it will stay landed while you deplane."

    Yes. This is the retort the flight attendent wishes they had said.

  25. Keith said,

    November 20, 2011 @ 10:08 pm

    @ Ian Tindale

    I'm sure that I've seen "momentarily" used in a sense similar to the "engineering" sense of "momentary" that you described and that I'm also familiar with.

    For the lights in my house to dim momentarily during a storm, before failing completely, would not strike me as unusual.

    To my mind, "momentarily" is the adverb, "momentary" is the adjective. A momentary switch is one which closes momentarily when activated, before reopening even if you hold your finger on it.

    Likewise, reason lapses momentarily when one suffers a momentary lapse of reason.


  26. Janice Byer said,

    November 21, 2011 @ 12:12 am

    Ellen, your sense is the same as mine. Indeed, let me put on a prescriptivist's hat and declare Mr. Cavett the guilty party for his improper sense of the word "landing" as being somehow synonymous with "landed".

    "We will be landing momentarily."
    "Will I have time to get off?"
    "I'm sorry, sir, but FAA regulations require all passengers to remain seated with seat-belt fastened during both take-off AND landing. After the captain has parked and turned off the seat belt light, you'll have more than sufficient time, sir. There, there."

  27. Philip said,

    November 21, 2011 @ 2:06 pm

    Decades ago in graduate school, I learned that "adverbs" fall into two general classes, MANNER NPs and sentencial NPs.

    For example, "He chose his words carefully" = "He chose his words in a careful manner" but "Clearly, he's wrong" = "I, the speaker of this sentence think it's clear that he is wrong."

    Isn't "momentarily" an example of the latter? "The plane will land momentarily" = "I, the speaker of this sentence" think that the plane will land in a moment."

  28. Janice Byer said,

    November 21, 2011 @ 5:51 pm

    Philip, yes, imo, it certainly is.

  29. Janice Byer said,

    November 21, 2011 @ 7:21 pm

    Several commenters suggest flight attendants say "soon" instead, which I'd guess is the word they're saying "momentarily" instead of.

    In certain contexts, such as the last cramped leg of a flight, the word "soon" feels loaded for bear with an infelicitous connotation articulated better by the Urban Dictionary than me.

  30. ERorie said,

    November 22, 2011 @ 3:14 pm

    @Geoff Nunberg: "That's who teenagers are appealing to with their eye-rolls, as if they were glancing over to an invisible homey in the other corner of the room." A lovely sentence.

  31. Mark Stephenson said,

    November 23, 2011 @ 7:21 am

    hector wrote:
    "It sounded unnecessarily pompous to me, and I would complain about it to whomever was unfortunate enough to have to listen."

    "Whomever" should be "whoever" — sorry, couldn't resist, but this is LanguageLog :-)

  32. Rod Johnson said,

    November 23, 2011 @ 4:54 pm

    Why? If you speak whom-dialect, it's the object of "to."

  33. Eneri Rose said,

    November 23, 2011 @ 5:45 pm

    I believe the object of the preposition is the entire phrase, and "whoever" is the subject of that phrase so it takes the nominative case.

  34. Matt McIrvin said,

    November 24, 2011 @ 12:58 pm

    I'm sure I've seen usage peevers actually correcting people who use "presently" to mean "now", insisting that it must only be used to mean "in the near future".

RSS feed for comments on this post