Wile away

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Paul Brians (Common Errors in English Usage) advises, under wile away/while away:

”Waiting for my physical at the doctor’s office, I whiled away the time reading the dessert recipes in an old copy of Gourmet magazine.” The expression “while away the time” is the only surviving context for a very old use of “while” as a verb meaning “to spend time.” Many people substitute “wile,” but to wile people is to lure or trick them into doing something—quite different from simply idling away the time. Even though dictionaries accept “wile away” as an alternative, it makes more sense to stick with the original expression.

I've been struggling with this one for some time for the Eggcorn Databasewile away might be seen as a replacement of the opaque (and, except in this idiom, obsolete) verb while by the somewhat more frequent wile — but the case turns out to be very complex. In particular, if this is an eggcorn, it has to be labeled "nearly mainstream".

The first shocker is that wile away is over 200 years old. The OED's first cite is from 1796 (Fannie Burney), and it has cites from, among others, Scott and Dickens. (The first cite for while away is from 1635 — clearly older, but not vastly so.) Meanwhile, as Brians notes, it's in some modern dictionaries, among them NOAD2 and AHD4.

In the comments section of the ecdb, Ken Lakritz noted (on 8/9/05) that wile away was common, speculated that it

seems to reconceptualize passive timewasting as an active tricking or deceiving of time.

and provided a set of examples:

A group of off- off- off- off-Broadway actors wile away their days at a local eatery dreaming of winning the lottery and making their own movie. (link)

The Decembrist: Alternative Histories
How different history would be if Rumsfeld had decided to wile away his days running a country newspaper with a rumpled, gay New York leftist! (link)

1950 and the coastal town of Rimini is about to experience another influx of the monied elite who come to wile away their time in elegant beach houses. (link)

In order to wile away the days of his confinement, Ralph made friends with an old olive tree he dubbed “Garibaldi”, in memory of the biscuit. (link)

I could wile away the hours Conferrin’ with the flowers Consultin’ with the rain
And my head I’d be scratchin’ While my thoughts were busy hatchin’ if I only had a brain. (link)

Why Should You Care About Unions?
After you graduate, you’ll get a good job, have a little money in your pocket, and wile away the days in middle class comfort. (link)

That's an eggcorn account: the new version makes sense (to some people) in a way that the old one did not.

At the other end of the scale, wile away could arise as a spelling error, especially for those who lack the /hw/-/w/ distinction (in pairs like whales vs. Wales). This possibility is hinted at by npetrikov in the Eggcorn Forum on 5/1/08:

“Wile away” seems a formation that must occur naturally among persons who either cannot pronounce or cannot hear what we oldsters used to label /hw/.

And W spellings for WH in whilea wile or awile for a while and awhile, for instance — do seem to be pretty common.

Again and again in discussions of potential eggcorns, we have to consider that some instances of innovative spellings might have arisen from simple misspelling. On the other hand, someone who doesn't hear the /hw/-/w/ distinction might interpret the first word in while away as in fact the word wile — rather than merely "spelling by ear".

In any case, once the spelling wile is out there, new speakers may come to think that the spelling makes sense. Or they might simply be reproducing the spellings they see. For the purposes of the eggcorn database, it's sufficient that the contributors can satisfy themselves that at least some of the instances involve a reinterpretation. We're not claiming that all of them do.

Finally: when an innovative variant becomes nearly mainstream, it's not uncommon for some people to view the older variant as an innovation — in a reversal of the actual history. So we get comments like this, by jorkel on the Eggcorn Forum on 5/1/8:

“Wile away” is an idiomatic expression meaning “to spend time pleasantly.” “While away” would be an incorrect understanding of that expression with enough imagery attached to it to be an eggcorn in itself…

One really has to wonder if the eggcorn went the other direction historically.

At least jorkel contemplated the possibility that the eggcorn went the other way historically. Sometimes users of the innovative variant are absolutely convinced that what is in fact the historical original is an error, possibly a recent one.

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