Printable Version
Pronunciation: êrst-hwail Hear it!

Part of Speech: Adjective, Adverb

Meaning: Former(ly), previous(ly), whilom.

Notes: Today's Good Word is a lexical orphan because of its age: all its immediate relatives are long since dead or in serious condition. It is amazing that we still occasionally read it and, in academia at least, hear it from time to distantly displaced time. When we forget erst, we can use while alone if we suffix it properly: whilom means the same thing: "He is the whilom editor of The Good Speler's Guide."

In Play: We suggest erstwhile as a Good Word because it is less formal and a bit sexier than former: "My erstwhile friend Phil Anders has been dating my sister for a month. I don't want her going out with anyone who has friends like me!" This word works just as well as an adverb: "The bears that erstwhile teemed in the forest are now hunkered down around the city garbage dump."

Word History: Today's Good Word is made up of two solidly English words, one of which is easily recognizable: erst + while. While comes from Old English hwil, which goes back to an ancient root kwei- "to rest, be quiet". In addition to while, it produced quies, quietis "quiet" in Latin. This word became quei in Old French and coi "quiet, speechless" in Modern French. English borrowed it as coy. Erst started out as the superlative of the adverb (preposition, conjunction) ere "before, earlier", as to leave ere morning breaks along the horizon (conjunction). In fact, that's it before the suffix -ly in early. The superlative, erst, originally meant "earliest" and, yes, it is a cousin of German ehe "earlier, before" and erst "first". (Today we owe thanks to Joayne Larson, who overcame any erstwhile hesitancy and suggested today's Good Word.)

Dr. Goodword,

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