Is it Among or Amongst or either? Origin, Usage & Difference

Among and/or Amongst?

It is common among English users to hesitate in speech, and even more in writing, when about to utter or write ‘amongst‘. Our second instinct, if ‘amongst’ is our first, is to autocorrect and switch to ‘among‘ – indeed many online or built-in spellcheckers encourage us to do so, as if ‘amongst’ was actually wrong. But is it? And, if it isn’t, what’s the difference, if any? (Pedants can save the debate of whether to start two consecutive sentences with conjunctions for another time!)

'Among' - Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology 1966

‘Among’ – Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, 1966

Definition of Among and Amongst?

Few would struggle with the definition of ‘among‘ meaning “in the midst of…, a member of…, occurring within…”. ‘Amongst‘ means exactly the same, and so is a variant spelling/direct equivalence synonym.

“Among is the earlier word of this pair: according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it first appeared in Old English. The variant form, amongst, is a later development, coming along in the Middle English period. With regard to their meanings, there’s no difference between among and amongst.” – Oxford Dictionaries

Origins and Etymology of Among/st

Old English ongemang (from on ‘in’ + gemang ‘assemblage, mingling’). The –st of amongst represents –s (adverbial genitive) + –t probably by association with superlatives (as in against). – Oxford Dictionary

among (prep.) 
early 12c., from Old English onmang, from phrase on gemang “in a crowd,” from gemengan “to mingle” (see mingle). Collective prefix ge– dropped 12c. leaving onmong, amang, among. Compare Old Saxon angimang “among, amid;” Old Frisian mong “among.” – Online Etymology Dictionary

among (prep.)
mid-13c., amonges, from among with adverbial genitive. Parasitic -t first attested 16c. (see amidst). It is well established in the south of England, but not much heard in the north. By similar evolutions, alongst also existed in Middle English. – Online Etymology Dictionary

So, ‘among’ is a 12th century Old English word which, over the 13th-16th centuries, added an ‘-s’ and then a ‘-t’. A word meaning “mingling” thus got a mangling, which has led to our modern muddling of the two.

What we have then is no difference in meaning, and while/whilst (yes these two words, while and whilst, have similar issues and origins, though ‘whilst’ has a more limited range of use) both ‘among’ and ‘amongst’ are old words, one is simply older. Again and against, however, developed separate meanings by the 16th century, despite similar developmental paths. Amid and amidst are further examples of ‘-st’ adding as a linguisitc or literary flourish, as are along and alongst, although it seems that adding ”st’ to unbeknown (1824), creating unbeknownst, is a Victorian addition (1848), which became the more frequent of the two words in US English.

Frequency/Occurrence of Among

The word ‘among’ sits amid the top 1000 most commonly used words – depending on who you ask – but not ‘amongst’.

Comparative Usage of Among and Amongst

With* American English users ‘among’ is more common, whilst amongst British English users, instances of ‘amongst’ increase. In the Oxford English Corpus (OEC) there are 11.54 times as many instances of among compared to amongst (8.36x in British English and 30.42x in US English). [* yet another sentence beginning with a conjunction – as synonyms for ‘among’ are few and far between, other than ‘amid’, ‘with’, ‘in’.]

At peak popularity, nearly 400 years ago, the ratio of usage was around 1 ‘amongst’ to every 3-4 ‘amongs’.

In American English, the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA) reveals that back in 1810 the ratio was like that of British English – around 9x or 1-in-10 occurrences. By 1980 that ratio was over 66x, but around 1950, 1970, 1990 there was some resurgent usage in literature. It has fallen in popularity again, since, now that web documents make up the bulk of statistical analysis. records 155 million web page hits for ‘amongst’ to 1,090,000,000 of ‘among’, so ‘amongst’ is not going to die away without a fight.

Amongst Pretentious and Old Fashioned?

Despite the older origins of ‘among’ it is ‘amongst’ that is considered “old fashioned” and even pretentious by US English aficionados [from the Spanish aficionar “inspire affection”].

“Amongst” and “amidst” are perfectly fine words, listed in dictionaries and everything, but they fall a bit on the “I know big words” scale of writing. – Columbia Journalism Review

Style Guide

Even British newspaper style guides recommend against the usage of ‘amongst’, among them – The Times Online Style Guide: “amid, not amidst; similarly among, not amongst”, and the Guardian Style Guide: “among not amongst”.

Christopher Daly, “the Better Editor“, says:

amidst, amongst, and whilst are all pretentious affectations and should never be used in your writing if you want to be taken seriously.”

Daly goes to analyse and point out that Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813) uses ‘amongst’ 7x to ‘among’ 17x, probably one of the closest ratios over time. Meanwhile Charles Dickens never uses any ”-st’ form of the words under discussion – or at least his editor and publisher didn’t.

Bryan A. Garner’s Modern American Usage describes ‘amongst’ as “more tolerable in British English” but “pretentious” in American English.

Autocorrect and Spellcheck

What can be confusing, is that spellcheckers and autocorrect features, even with British English dictionaries, will often mark ‘amongst’ as just plain wrong or suggest correction to ‘among’, making users less confident in its use and driving down its frequency. In the end, it’s a question of choice and taste over style, not right over wrong. Amongst, is almost as old as among, but cannot be called the more antiquated or pretentious of the pair. If anything, the true professional pedant should feel free to redeem its use with a flick of floriate flourish in conversation, and feel confident enough to argue for its antiquity and authentic use, so long as you don’t mind sounding like Mr Darcy!


Dispatch or Despatch, which is the correct English spelling?

Difference between Dispatch and Despatch

Whilst browsing an online auction site, okay so it was eBay, I spotted an ad that irked me. It was for yet another rival parcel delivery service or postal services aggregator/comparison site – competition is certainly keeping the prices down, especially of sending high heeled shoes through the post, the Royal Mail has recently specifically discounted a shoe box sized parcel! The ad in question was for, named to sound like eBay rather than PirateBay one assumes – since the latter might suggest the stealing of goods rather than their dispatch, and the alternate meaning of dispatch – “to kill with quick efficiency” (Merriam-Webster, attested since the 1520s).

Despatch BayPerhaps they chose Despatch Bay over Dispatch Bay because the latter was already in use, by The Dispatch Bay, a UK-to-Pakistan specific courier business:

The Dispatch BayAlthough, I doubt they give it much thought, given how badly punctuated the website of the brand-owning company, The SaleGroup, is. Their tagline is “The Benchmark For Online Business” and yet we spotted half a dozen errors on a single page alone. They “eat, sleep and breathe the internet”, but I think they were ‘sleeping‘ during their proofreading.

This brings me to my professional pedant‘s persnicketiness (a much better word than pernickety, the extra ‘s’ in there, added around 1915, sounds so much more sinister and sneaky). My issue is that ‘despatch‘ just looks and sounds wrong, compared to (or with?) the more traditional, and so I thought, correct, ‘dispatch‘. So I went on an authoritative and exhaustive examination of the facts, i.e., I googled it.

Despatch a variant spelling of Dispatch?

My initial inquiry – or rather enquiry in British English to be ever so slightly pedantic, led me to believe that ‘despatch‘ was just a less common variation of ‘dispatch‘ and more typically British, in about a third of its millions of uses. So says the usually excellent Grammarist, anyway – the comments on their post are worth reading alone for how the discussion got into whether ‘despatch‘ was a noun or verb in some instances and for the commendable digression onto “a box of frogs and a shipment of drugs” whilst on “whacky baccy”! But I was not convinced.

Despatch Box

The specific use of the phrase “Despatch Box” when referring to the UK and Australian Parliamentary speaking lecturn lectern/rest and documents boxes (though now containing a Bible used for oaths) dates from the 17th century in Britain (although the current boxes were gifts from New Zealand after the existing ones were destroyed by a German bomb in 1941) and as a gift from King George V to Australia in 1927. I’ve not been able to prove a consistent early provenance of Despatch over Dispatch Box, but Despatch Box seems to have stuck in the British Parliament now. A historic anomaly, perhaps? What not “an historic anomaly” – well that is another grammar, style, and usage question entirely!

Dispatch and Despatch according to the Dictionary

A user on the StackExchange English Language & Usage site writes: “The OED lists both spellings with equal status. ‘Dispatch’ is by far the more common spelling, uniquely so in the 16th, 17th, and 18th-century examples. ‘Despatch’ seems to have become fashionable in the late Victorian period.”

I would place the fashion as late 18th century though, due to the influence of the lexophile, Dr Samuel Johnson. Allegedly, the variant spelling arose due to a printing error in Dr Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755), which brought both spellings into wider usage by adding legitimacy to the des- spelling. Prior to that, spelling was hardly rigidly enforced.

Of the digital entries transcribed so far in an online version of the dictionary, ‘dispatch‘ occurs 8 times to a singular occurrence of ‘despatch‘ when used to define other words. As a dictionary entry itself, it only occurs under ‘despatch‘, there being no entry for ‘dispatch’ at all.

Dr Johnson's Dictionary entry - despatchUpon reviewing Johnson’s examples of the use of ‘despatch‘ in Shakespeare’s King Lear and the King James Version Bible (1611) it appears it was Johnson’s spelling, not the original’s he was citing, for though he has ‘despatch‘ in Ezekiel 23:47, the original KJV had:

“And the companie shall stone them with stones, and dispatch them with their swords: they shall slay their sonnes and their daughters, and burne vp their houses with fire.”

It will no doubt remain a debate for some time to come, even if it was at first an error, it is now a common error, and perhaps more peculiarly British. Though one forum commentator described seeing it “in Australia, where in New South Whales [sic], I encountered ‘despatch‘ everywhere, and in Queensland and Victoria, the ‘common’ spelling was ‘dispatch‘.”

Even users of a business discussion forum got heated on the subject and no closer to a conclusion, each claiming dis- or des- was more British and dis- definitely American, and thus to be discouraged! In the end, their solution was to use ‘send’ or ‘post’ instead.


It is alleged by many sources that the words both have legitimate but distinct origins, that ‘dispatch‘ came from the Italian word dispacciare and ‘despatch‘ from the Spanish word despachar. For example, the website entry which, unfortunately, misspells one of them to confuse the situation further:

“The origins of both words are also different. ‘Dispatch‘ came from the Italian word ‘dispacciare’. On the other hand, ‘dispatch’ came from the Spanish word ‘despachar’.”

They correct themselves in their summary:

“‘Despatch‘ came from the Spanish ‘despachar’ while the Italian ‘dispacciare’ formed the basis and formed the modern word of ‘dispatch‘.”

To call the word ‘dispatch“modern” is blatantly not true given the King James Bible and Shakespeare examples cited above and erroneously by Dr Johnson.

The second part of the word ‘-patch‘ is consistently spelt but variously attributed:

The exact source of the second element has been proposed as Vulgar Latin *pactare “to fasten, fix” or *pactiare, or as Latin -pedicare “to entrap” (from Latin pedica “shackle;” see impeach); and the Spanish and Italian words seem to be related to (perhaps opposites of) Old Provençal empachar “impede.”

Whatever the Latin root, the Spanish ended up with despachar “expedite, hasten” and the Italians dispacciare “to dispatch”, with little difference between des– and dis-, other than spelling.

Despatch, South Africa

As an aside, Despatch is also a small town in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa situated between Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage, from where its main product was ‘dis-‘ or ‘despatched‘. Its name was derived from the late 1800s brick industry it became renowned for, and with which its bricks were imprinted.


It would seem in an international commerce age prudent to go with the more internationally and internet acceptable majority of ‘dispatch‘, particularly if some people’s reactions to seeing ‘despatch‘ is to think mistake or typo and thus give off a less professional image. Even if the OED says both are acceptable, it is impression and opinion that matter as much as legitimacy and a dubious history. For business purposes the 10-50x as many web searches and results done for ‘dispatch‘ over ‘despatch‘ would indicate that the former is a better SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) choice. To anyone who disagrees, may they be dispatched overseas!