While away vs. wile away

The phrase meaning to pass time idly is while away. It is older and more logical than wile away. But because the second phrase occurs so frequently, it is now included in many dictionaries and is rarely considered incorrect.

The OED has instances of while away going back to the early 18th century. The phrase employs a now archaic sense of while—namely, to fill up the time. Today, while is used only as a noun or conjunction (except in while away), and because 21st-century English speakers not used to seeing while as a verb, it’s easy to assume that wile away is the correct phrase.

But wile is mainly a noun—meaning (1) trickery, cunning; (2) a disarming or seductive manner; (3) or a trick intended to deceive—and it’s occasionally used as a verb meaning to influence by wile. None of these definitions has anything to do with idly passing time, so wile away doesn’t make logical sense. Again, however, it is now a conventionalized misspelling, and only the most persnickety readers will think it wrong.

Examples

Still, until a Red Web Redemption comes out, Shattered Dimensions looks to be a bright and diverting enough way for Spider-fans to while away a few hours. [Guardian]

You’re at the state fair gates at the crack of dawn Sunday, you get your armband at 8, and now you’ve got nine-plus hours to while away until you and 11,999 of your new best friends get in to see Justin Bieber . [Baltimore Sun]

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