These Oftentimes Times

oftentimes_3My colleague Ben Yagoda predicted it a year and a half ago: Oftentimes is on the rise. I just returned from South Carolina, where I was struck by its ubiquity. A server at a restaurant told me that oftentimes people preferred their salad dressing on the side. In a nature preserve, a fellow walker told us he had oftentimes seen alligators sunning themselves on that patch of weeds. Most surprising, my son, who’s moved to South Carolina for work, peppered his speech with oftentimes, an expression I had never heard from him before. He pronounced it, as did the others, with two t’s.

The word is certainly showing up more frequently. Google’s Ngram viewer shows its being used in books more than twice as often in 2008 as in 1995, though even with that sharp rise it occurs half as much as in 1905, when books like Sylvanus Stall’s What a Young Man Ought to Know cautioned against (among other things) “unnatural stimulation” of the salivary glands, “as is oftentimes done by those who chew gum for several hours and day after day.” In other words, the word has sounded archaic until fairly recently.

Whether oftentimes is in part a regional expression I cannot determine. I may have noticed it in the South because it’s more frequent there or because I tend to notice language more when I’m in a different area of the country. The Corpus of Contemporary American English notes instances of the expression in spoken interviews and reports on all the major networks and in written form in magazines, newspapers, novels, and academic publications. There do seem to be more frequent appearances in interviews in African-American magazines like Essence, confirming one friend’s judgment that it’s a common colloquialism in the black community. But it also appears in the National Review and in the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy — most often embedded in quoted speech, but sometimes as part of a report or analysis, as in the point made in the Quarterly Review of Distance Education: “Oftentimes with mobile learning, an individual may choose to learn something based upon a personal interest or a sudden need.”

Are we simply talking about an affectation here, along the lines of the recent rise in amongst rather than among? Most sources view often and oftentimes as synonymous. The Oxford English Dictionary makes virtually no distinction in its definitions, noting only that oftentimes is now “chiefly N. Amer.” Both mean “many times” and “frequently.” In actual use, though, even those who have boarded the oftentimes train will find only the humble often will do. Take, for instance, this pair of statements:

Often, I don’t bother with it.

I don’t bother with it often.

Replace the first with oftentimes, and its meaning of many times sharpens: “Oftentimes, I don’t bother with it.”  But try replacing the word in the second statement: “I don’t bother with it oftentimes.” It sounds out of place, probably because the meaning here is frequently; or, in another way of phrasing the point, “I don’t bother with it most of the time.” Notably, oftentimes is practically never written or spoken as oftentime, because the reference is to theoretically countable occasions and not to a sort of habit.

Take, as a final example, my own sentence above: “Google’s Ngram viewer shows its being used in books more than twice as often in 2008 as in 1995.” True, some bot out there is actually capable of counting the number of times you can see the word oftentimes in certain books published in 1995. But my claim refers to a trend, and to replace often with oftentimes would seem — at least to me — inappropriate.

Still, oftentimes is happening oftener, maybe oftener enough that the OED will eventually have to update its references to oftener times and oftenest times, last noted as early 17th century. My phrase, above — “most often embedded in quoted speech”— would become “oftenest times embedded in quoted speech.” Not my choice of phrasing, but who knows? Everything old is new again.

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