Etymology Usage

Is “oftentimes” off-putting?

Q: Am I at all justified in my disdain for the word “oftentimes”? I understand the speaker is differentiating from “sometimes,” but it sounds redundant to me.

A: Our language is full of surprises. Redundant or not, “oftentimes” is standard English and has been part of the language since the 14th century.

“Oftentimes,” an adverb meaning frequently or repeatedly, can be found in standard dictionaries like The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

It also has an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines it as meaning “many times; on many occasions; in many cases; frequently, often.”

The OED’s earliest citation for the word is from the late 1300s. In Middle English, the OED says, the term was “written indifferently as one word or as two.” But since the 16th century it’s usually been written as one word.

Today “oftentimes” is used chiefly in North America, according to the OED. Elsewhere, it’s considered archaic or literary.

A shorter version, “oft-times,” was recorded slightly earlier than “oftentimes” but isn’t heard as much in modern times. “Oft-times” is now labeled chiefly archaic or poetic. But it, too, can be found in standard dictionaries and is a quite legitimate usage.

In case you’re wondering, “oft” is extremely old, dating from early Old English. The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says it goes back to before the year 725.

Today it’s still used regionally in the north of England but otherwise the usage is considered archaic or poetic. (It does occasionally turn up, in phrases like “oft-quoted remark” and “oft-told tale.”)

In everyday usage, “oft” was pretty much replaced after the 16th century by the extended form “often.” Chambers says the development of “often” may have been influenced by its opposite number in Old English, seldan (seldom).

And while we’re on the subject, you may be interested in a blog entry we wrote a few years ago on the pronunciation of “often.”

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