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When and how did “momentarily” come to mean “in a moment”, rather than “for a moment”?

Almost every time I fly, shortly (!) before arrival I hear a flight attendant say something like "We will be landing momentarily, please return to your seat." I understand that what is meant is "we will be landing a few minutes from now," but what I hear is "we will be landing for a short time, then immediately take off again."

So, what is the real meaning of "momentarily"?

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marked as duplicate by Lynn, jwpat7, FumbleFingers, yoozer8, simchona Jan 5 '12 at 19:54

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

I think this is a duplicate of the one Matt linked. – Lynn Jan 5 '12 at 16:00

In American English it means very soon. In British English it means for a very short time. Hence a sense of relief for American passengers and of alarm for British ones.

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Or in the case of "We will be taking off momentarily", the Briton thinks "hey, an American used momentarily correctly (if by accident)" – slim Jan 5 '12 at 15:36
Actually, can we agree that Americans sometimes use it to mean "for a very short time" too. In AmE it has two meanings, in BrE it only has one. – slim Jan 5 '12 at 15:41
@slim: Yeh, OK, except it spoils the joke. – Barrie England Jan 5 '12 at 15:45
Not really. They do say "we will be taking off momentarily", and one does think "hey, that's true!" – slim Jan 5 '12 at 15:51

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.

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The OED gives the sense ‘at any moment; in a moment, soon’ as ‘chiefly North American’. – Barrie England Jan 5 '12 at 18:37
@Barrie England: I'm not disagreeing with "chiefly" anything. I'm taking issue with the idea that the word actually has one meaning in the US, and another in the UK. It has both meanings for all of us, but it just so happens the most common meaning is different on each side of the Altlantic. Well, that's what I think, anyway. America is such a large country there are bound to be some people there who simply don't understand the other meaning - but there are probably some who don't understand either meaning, so that's not saying much. – FumbleFingers Jan 5 '12 at 18:44
Yes, of course. Understood. – Barrie England Jan 5 '12 at 19:56

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