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"Momentarily" used to mean "for a moment" only, and not "in a moment". Thus, newscasters could be divided into two clear groups: those who would say "we'll be back momentarily," and those who would not.

This restriction made sense to me, because having both definitions would promote ambiguity if a unique interpretation could not always be derived from the context. But in recent years it seems "momentarily" is regularly, maybe even more often, used to mean "in a moment" by newscasters of every caliber, and in fact this is even shown to be the definition when looked up in most dictionaries.

When did this word's meaning change? How did it come about?

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Don't forget presently... English is a strange beast. –  Cerberus Jun 3 '11 at 0:12
@Cerberus: Language is a strange beast. –  Kosmonaut Jun 3 '11 at 0:26
@Kosmonaut: True. But English has never been properly domesticated. –  Cerberus Jun 3 '11 at 0:41
I think that the usage "in a moment" is largely constrained to North America (being vague, because I don't know about Canadian usage). As an en-gb speaker, whenever I fly with an American airline and hear the pilot say, "We will take off momentarily," I'm tempted to say out loud, "I hope not!" –  Peter Taylor Aug 21 '11 at 12:29
Not "I hope not" but "quite right". The plane approaches take off, then momentarily it is taking off, then it is in the air. –  slim Jan 6 '12 at 16:07

6 Answers 6

The Patrician, Lord Vetinari:
'I shall deal with the matter momentarily,' he said. It was a good word. It always made people hesitate. They were never quite sure whether he meant he'd deal with it now, or just deal with it briefly.
And no-one ever dared ask.

Guards! Guards! - Sir Terry Pratchett

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Sorry. Removed my +1 because though this made me smile, and Terry Pratchett should be quoted at every opportunity, it isn't actually an answer to the question. –  John Bartholomew Jun 3 '11 at 2:16
+1 because whatever @John says, the "soon" meaning of "momentarily" predates television announcers by many, many decades. To protest otherwise is pure pedantry. –  FumbleFingers Aug 21 '11 at 18:21

(answer copied over from this later question closed as a dup)

I think it's misleading to suggest the two different meaning are simply "the" American and British usages. I'm sure most competent speakers on both sides of the pond are perfectly well aware the word has both meanings (and has done for centuries).

It's true Brits normally use it to mean lasting for a moment, as opposed to Americans normally using it to mean about to happen in a moment. But we all transparently understand the other meaning when we encounter it - and context usually makes it abundantly clear which is intended. Only pedantic Americans would fret over "The display flickered momentarily", and I disown any of my fellow Brits who would take issue with "The dam will burst momentarily".

The good folk over at Merriam-Webster love taking side-swipes at such pedantry. They devote nearly a whole page to this one word in that link, and it seems to me every other paragraph takes a pop at anyone claiming it (or indeed any other word) can only have one meaning.

To summarise the MW position, a couple of centuries ago, momentarily had four meanings - instantly, from moment to moment, briefly, and very soon. The first two have long fallen into disuse. In the early 1900s that fourth meaning, which had hitherto been quite rare, gained traction in America by extension/conflation with the second meaning. Both the last two meanings are currently valid in the US and UK, but the fourth is relatively rare in current British usage.

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I just searched Google NGrams for the phrase "back momentarily"; the first appearance of the phrase seems to be around 1850, but the first appearance with the meaning in, rather than for, a moment appears to be in the History of the Fifteenth Regiment, New Hampshire Volunteers, 1862-1863 (published 1899):

While he was gone we received orders from headquarters, and our Lieutenant Pickering drew up the company, expecting the captain back momentarily.

In principle, I fully agree that this usage is incorrect... but I don't think we can blame anyone still living for it.

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Per my comment on @Martin's answer, I really don't understand how anyone can use the word "incorrect" about a meaning that goes back well over a century. You guys should be on the board of the Academie Francaise. –  FumbleFingers Aug 21 '11 at 18:25
Your NGram link is an unrelated search term. When I searched for back momentarily, the first three results were all earlier. –  FumbleFingers Sep 7 '12 at 19:48
@FumbleFingers - When I posted that link (over a year ago - nice resurrection!), I failed to include the search term and instead posted a bare link to NGrams; "Atlantis" vs. "El Dorado" is the default. Nice catch. However, if you'll actually read those first results, as I did over a year ago, you'll see that they are for phrases that contain "back momentarily", but in the original sense of "briefly" rather than "immediately"... in other words, they don't answer the OP's question. But again, nice catch. –  MT_Head Sep 9 '12 at 11:57
I've just realised that the three results in my link are actually duplicates of a single instance anyway (but dated 1825, 1826, and 1834). Given you've found an instance only a few decades later (1863) where the meaning is clearly in a moment rather than for a moment, I'd say there's little to suggest any particular one of the four meanings listed by MW was the "original", or in any sense more "correct" than any other. –  FumbleFingers Sep 9 '12 at 12:36

Searching for "momentarily expecting" yields some very old uses with the meaning "in a moment".

From The Fast of St. Magdelen, by Anna Maria Porter, 1818, via Google books.

Momentarily expecting the appearance of this person, and winding up her spirit to sustain the rude encounter of probable insult or menace from him, she sat down on her bed, alternately listening to hear whether her enraged gaolers were coming, or ejaculating an agonized appeal to heaven.

And from 1744

... on the 4th we had 10 feet water in our hold, which made our condition very bad, and the dread of death appeared in every face, for we momentarily expected to be swallowed up;

There are lots of instances of "momentarily expect(s/ed/ing)" from the early 1800s with this meaning, so it's been used this way fairly regularly for at least 200 years. In fact, from the following Ngram, the phrase "momentarily expected" has been declining in use, which is very weak evidence for the word "momentarily" shifting in meaning away from the meaning "in a moment".

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If you look at old dictionaries and grammars with Google books, you discover that some of them (for example, Chambers's, 1867) say that the word you were supposed to use for this sense of momentarily was momently, but from the above Ngram, it appears that momentarily has always been more popular than momently, even for this meaning.

If you look at Ngrams, you discover that momently was also used for both meanings in the early 1800s:

And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced; —Kubla Khan, Coleridge, 1797.

What I think may have happened was that in the early 1800s, there were two words, momentarily and momently, with essentially the same two meanings (either "in a moment" and "for a moment"). Some prescriptive dictionary writers decided to assign one meaning to momentarily and the other to momently, but it never caught on. To defend the dictionary writers, this difference in meaning is indeed justified etymologically, since momentarily is derived from momentary, meaning for a moment, while momently is derived directly from moment.

The word momently is now effectively gone from the English language, but prescriptive grammarians still say that momentarily should only have the one meaning.

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As pointed out by MW in my link, Webster himself specifically chose momently expect as an example because it can embody two of the original four meanings (in a moment, every moment). And momently/momentarily are (were?) really just alternative inflections for the same word, IMHO. –  FumbleFingers Jan 6 '12 at 19:04

Momentarily does not mean soon. If it did, why not ditch "soon"? It means for a short while, e.g. "he stayed looking at the house momentarily, before moving on."

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Welcome to EL&U. This is not a discussion forum, but a Q&A site, and your answer does not appear to answer the original question. Besides, the dictionaries seem to disagree with you, certainly in North America. –  choster Sep 24 at 23:53

The meaning never changed. The word is widely misused in North America. It still means "for a moment", not "in a moment".

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How many times, and for how many years, does a word need to be used with a specific meaning before you accept that it really does have that meaning? Even if you are very old, "momentarily" has been commonly used to mean "in a short time" for longer than you've been alive. –  FumbleFingers Aug 21 '11 at 18:19

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