In the first episode of the Showtime series Masters of Sex, William Masters is talking to a prostitute named Betty, and notes that she faked an orgasm during sex. "Is that a common practice among prostitutes?" he asks her. "It’s a common practice amongst anyone with a twat," replies Betty.
Clearly, two words contribute to the humor of Betty’s comeback, and the second is amongst. The show takes place in America in the 1950s, which is relevant because in that time and place virtually nobody said amongst. For the past few centuries, amongst has been a distinctly British word, though even there among is more popular. In the United States, according to the Google Books database, the last time amongst was about as common as among was in 1720.
Curiously, however, amongst appears to be on the upswing. To give just a couple of examples:
A beauty publicist named Alexis Rodriguez Alvich, quoted in the New York Times, explained why she hesitated for two years before taking her husband’s last name: "When you work in P.R. and have established yourself amongst a set of editors who know you as one person, it’s hard to quickly transition to something else and to get them to recognize who you are."
The headline of a recent Forbes.com blog post: Tickets for Red Sox-Pirates World Series Would Have Been Amongst Highest Ever.
Language changes all the time, of course, but this would seem to be a strange one. Amongst means exactly the same thing as among, but, in addition to having two more letters, sounds more old-fashioned, if not antique. Indeed, after its 1720 American apogee, amongst steadily declined until reaching a nadir in 1994, when among was used approximately 52 times more frequently, according to Google Books.
The comeback of amongst started in about 2000. That year it appeared in the Times a mere 126 times—a significant number of them in paid death notices that used the traditional Jewish consolation to mourners, "May the Almighty comfort you amongst the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem." Last year, in contrast, the Times published 1,160 amongsts, an increase of more than 800 percent.
The same trend is happening on the ground, at least in my experience. In their writing, the college students I teach use amongst at least as often as among (they are also partial to amidst and occasionally throw in a whilst for good measure). And when you listen to people talk, it’s inescapable. Just pay close attention to The Daily Show—Jon Stewart is a power user of amongst.
So what’s the explanation for the shift? It’s tempting to ascribe it to the Linda Richman effect. Richman, of course, was Mike Myers’ early-'90s Saturday Night Live character, the host of the show within a show called "Coffee Talk." Whenever she had "a moment," she would instruct her listeners: "Talk amongst yourselves."
Without question, it was a good catchphrase, but good enough to power the resurgence of a word? No, but I sense that people like it for the same reason Myers understood that his character would. In 1922, the linguist Otto Jesperson coined the term "hypercorrect," referring to a word or usage "falsely modelled on an apparently analogous prestigeful form," as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it. One example would be an Anita Loos showgirl referring ungrammatically to some fancy clothes given "to my girlfriends and I."
Amongst is not a mistake, so it doesn’t precisely fit the definition. So let's call it a "Runyon-correction," in homage to the Guys and Dolls gangsters who, putting on airs, are discordantly proper when referring to "an individual with whom I’m acquainted." Both Runyon-corrections and hypercorrections are all over the student papers, blog posts, and published texts that I read. Especially popular are myself ("The winner was myself"), whomever ("The award will go to whomever deserves it the most"), often giving way to oftentimes (almost always pronounced "off-ten-times"), and even advisor, a spelling that essentially didn’t exist before about 1900, but sounds formal and British—even though it isn’t—and now crushes the traditional adviser in a Google Fight, 29,800,000 to 6,140,000.
Bursts of hyper- and Runyon-corrections are surprising given the widespread sense, especially in the Internet age, that language is becoming less rather than more formal. Which indeed holds true for such trends as they replacing he or she, and the withering of both the subjunctive mode and the word whom (even as whomever continues to occupy the earth). Amongst rides against the tide, I would assert, because the formal and the informal have gotten all mixed up. The past decade or two have been a time when people have done more writing than at any other moment in history. But young people growing up in the digital age do almost all their writing among friends—texting, IM-ing, emailing, and engaging in countless other forms of social media. When they’re called upon to write in a formal or official setting—for a class assignment or for publication on a blog or in a magazine—they’re uncertain of the protocol. Amongst and other formulations represent a kind of better-safe-than-sorry strategy.
That amongst has moved well past the Millennials suggests many of us now lack footing on the formal-informal landscape. Sometimes you just want a word that sounds official. The fact that it lingers pleasingly in the mouth, and sticks the landing with a terminal "t"—well, it’s a win-win, and I have a feeling that it will hold its own amongst fellow prepositions long after with whom has waved its last goodbye.