Q&A: Edgeways vs edgewise

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're taking the leading edge…

Q: Hi AWC, I was wond—

A: It’s a great day today, don’t you think? What a marvellous time to be alive!

Q: Um, sure. Anyway, I was —

A: These chats we have really are quite excellent, and so enlightening, don’t you think?

Q: Well, if I can—

A: Constantly shining a light on English and its many foibles. Gosh, foibles is a funny word – we really must take a look at that some time. Anyway, what should—

Q: Enough! I can’t get a word in edgeways!

A: Oh. Sorry.

Q: Well, it’s okay, because you’ve somehow managed to illustrate today’s topic. The other day I heard someone say that they “couldn’t get a word in edgewise”. So, which is it? Edgeways or edgewise?

A: Are you ready for the answer you hate the most?

Q: Sigh. It’s both isn’t it?

A: Ding ding ding – that’s right. It’s both!

Q: Ugh, English is the WORST.

A: Not the worst, just a little petulant at times. Anyway, you’ll be pleased to know that “edgeways” was the original word.

Q: Always good to know…

A: It edged its way into English in the 1560s, with a very literal meaning – “with the edge turned forward or toward a particular point” – a meaning it retains today.

Q: And “edgewise”?

A: It didn’t arrive for at least another 100 years, a variant likely from mishearing the original and linking to “otherwise”. Along with it came that bonus idiomatic phrase meaning “to edge in a word”.

Q: So if both are correct, which one do I use?

A: Geography settled that one for you it seems. Early on, America opted for “edgewise” and has continued this trend today. Most speakers there will be unfamiliar with “edgeways”, despite it being the dominant form everywhere except North America.

Q: So here in Australia, it’s “edgeways”?

A: That’s right. Our Macquarie Dictionary confirms this by giving the entry to “edgeways” but acknowledging the “edgewise” variant exists. Conversely, America’s Merriam-Webster lists “edgeways” as a “chiefly British” meaning for “sideways” – only crediting “edgewise” with the idiom.

Q: So in summary, there is still a literal “sideways” meaning for both?

A: Yes. Oxford Dictionaries uses the example: “You'll only get the desk through the door if you turn it edgeways.”

Q: And with the idiom about making yourself heard in conversation, it’s “word in edgewise” in America and “word in edgeways” everywhere else?

A: That’s right!

Q: All this makes me very on edge.

A: To be “on edge” – excited or irritable – dates back to 1872.

Q: Brilliant. Any other fun facts?

A: Well yes actually, for ex—

Q: Oh I’m sorry, it seems that we are out of time, my apologies, I really didn’t realise how long we’d been chatting. Perhaps next time?

A: I can see what you’re—

Q: Anyway, good old English aye? Sometimes I think I need an atlas, not a dictionary, am I right? Well, anyway, I must be going.

A: …


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