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janbb's avatar

Without looking it up, what does the word "erstwhile" mean to you?

Asked by janbb (62551points) May 19th, 2023

I saw it used incorrectly in print recently. hence, the question.

Humor welcome.

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15 Answers

elbanditoroso's avatar

Steady, dependable, stalwart.

zenvelo's avatar

A small shellfish, a salt-water bivalve mollusc, if eaten in a month without an “R”, is considered erstwhile.

jca2's avatar

I had to look it up because I had no clue. It’s not a word that I hear too often.

Hawaii_Jake's avatar

erstwhile: verb to move in an easterly direction with the objective of reaching the sea. (I erstwhile tomorrow to Rehoboth Beach.)

Hawaii_Jake's avatar

erstwhile: verb to fritter time (She erstwhiled until he finally called.)

janbb's avatar

I haven’t looked it up yet but I always thought it meant “former,” for example, his “erstwhile” pastime was playing golf. But in the written piece I read, which I no longer have, it was used to mean something entirely different. I’ll look it up eventually but thought it would be fun to bat it around a bit.

Lightlyseared's avatar

Former. But I always consider it to have a slightly negative connotation.

Jeruba's avatar

Former, but not just former. Using a literary term for it gives it a flavor of . . . something. Maybe a touch of irony, as is often the case when inflated or fussy or formal language occurs in ordinary speech. The word attracts a little emphasis, and that may make it seem slightly ironic.

Still without looking it up, I would decode it as “erst” = first, oldest, and “while” = time; interpreting it as belonging to a former time, and not literally first or oldest. (Note, this is not true and verified etymology, just my best guess.) There is that sense of relating to a past period or era, and not just something superseded.

I would tend to reserve it for relationships of some sort; for example, his erstwhile lover, your erstwhile employer. I would not refer to her erstwhile car or my erstwhile residence. Well, maybe the latter.

Ok, let’s see what Webster says.

janbb's avatar

@Jeruba I am not as verbose as you but that is my impression of it too.

flutherother's avatar

I had the impression it meant something like alternative so an erstwhile king was someone who might have been king but isn’t. It is a much more striking word than “former” but to me it didn’t have the sense of “previous”. It seems I was wrong.

smudges's avatar

I thought it meant “meanwhile”, but after reading the responses I’ll have to look it up.

SnipSnip's avatar

It means previous or former. I thought it also was used like we use meanwhile or in the meantime but I looked it up and it doesn’t mean that at all. I’ve never used it but have seen it in print. It’s an ugly-looking word to me.

ragingloli's avatar

Since “erst” is german for first, I would say “in the beginning/in the early stages”

KNOWITALL's avatar

I thought it meant meanwhile.

SnipSnip's avatar

@ragingloli It means the opposite.

@KNOWITALL I thought so too but it means previous.

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