X v Y: For one brief shining moment …


Next up in Glosso’s “X v Y” series: does momentarily mean very soon — or very briefly?

“We’ll see you momentarily.” That sentence can mean very different things to different minds, depending on which side of the Atlantic they’re on (or from). To Americans about to greet long-absent friends, it’s bound to evoke excitement. Said to a British actor about to view his cameo in a movie premiere, that sentence might bring crushing disappointment.

“The best music, you can seek some shelter in it momentarily, but it’s essentially there to provide you something to face the world with.” When Bruce Springsteen said those words (which could have done with a light copy-edit), his meaning of momentarily was clear: fleetingly, for just an instant or a moment. And this is the one and only meaning of the adverb in British English, both officially and colloquially.  The OED gives its definition as “for a moment”. However, in North America momentarily has taken on a second meaning not unlike its first – it is all about the brevity of time captured in a single moment, after all. In the US and Canada, as well as for a moment, momentarily means in a moment – ie. very soon, even immediately. Context clarifies the meaning; it’s hard to come up with an example of an ambiguous momentarily sentence. (Perhaps a doctor barking “I’ll see you momentarily!” at his patient in the waiting room could be interpreted as either a very brief wait or a very brief consultation …) In Justin Hines’s song “Momentarily”, I think he’s on the same page as Springsteen:  \”Momentarily\” – Justin Hines.

Let us turn momentarily to another related word, which is rarely if ever used nowadays. Momently is a poetic, literary or archaic variation of momentarily in its British guise, and it carries two additional meanings: from moment to moment, and every moment. English dictionaries tend to define it as an archaic synonym of momentarily. I can’t find it in any of my American dictionaries. Fowler, in the 2nd edition of his Modern English Usage, goes so far as to make a firm distinction between momentarily and momently, and in doing so he gives us a clue as to how the new American meaning of momentarily might have come about – through the slight ambiguity of momently and its implication of imminence as well as constancy:

“The first [momentarily] means for a moment (he was momentarily abashed), the second from moment to moment or every moment (am momently expecting a call from him). The differentiation is well worth more faithful observance than it gets; and the substitution of either, which sometimes occurs, for INSTANTLY or immediately or at once is foolish NOVELTY-HUNTING.”  [See Fowler’s fabulous essay on “novelty hunting”, which deserves its own discussion.]

Momently wasn’t always used poetically, according to Wikipedia. Older actuarial textbooks refer to “interest convertible momently” and “payments momently” when discussing continuous annuities; here the meaning seems to lie somewhere in the realms of consistency and continuity, rather than in fleeting moments.

Let’s give the final word to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who immortalized momently in his famous poem “Kubla Khan” (published in 1816). Does the momently burst of his mighty fountain symbolize the fleeting nature of a human life?

(Lines 17 – 28)

And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail:
And ‘mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean:
First posted December 2012.