Momentarily

Having been reading wa-ay too many reports on the US elections (YAY!), I keep stubbing my metaphorical toe on the common American use of the word “momentarily” to mean, um, “soon”.

Mark Liberman explores the issues on Languagelog, under “Peeves” (cf. Stack exchange). (For a bête noire of mine, see Reaching a crescendo, or not.)

As usual (cf. OMG), the usage goes back a long way—in this case to at least 1798. But more recently it is the Americans who have clung to the meaning of “soon”. The discussion also mentions “momently”, also early but now obsolete.

As many observers have commented, for Brits new to flying in the States it’s most disconcerting to hear the pilot announcing “We will be taking off momentarily”; since one hopes that having achieved altitude we might be able to remain airborne for quite some time, one surely expects a rather more upbeat prediction. At the other end too, Dick Cavett’s comment

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?”, 

inspires a brilliantly pedantic thread, which needn’t detain us here.

I also support the objection that “momentarily” sounds like “an attempt to be fancy” [Objection sustained—there’s another thing we don’t get to say over here].

Anyway, I’m always glad of an excuse to cite Airplane. For a fine mid-air tannoy story, click here; for further divergent US/UK usages, here, here, and even here; see also And I’m like.

This, from BBC news only last week, was suspiciously prophetic (reporter waiting round dark corner with baseball bat):

Diego Maradona is to have emergency surgery caused by a head injury in the next few hours.

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