Usage and Grammar

Q. Greetings, I am an editor at a law firm in Tokyo. I have explained to a colleague that, in my opinion, the term “in the meantime” appears to have evolved, as certain expressions do, and now may be being used incorrectly. Based on my research, the original, and certainly, the principal, meaning of this term, which obviously functions as an adverb, is “in the intervening period.” Based on letters she has received from England and the States, she firmly believes that this is an acceptable substitute for “by the way.” Neither of us is budging on this point. Though she is quite proficient in English, as a native English speaker, I (hopefully!) have the advantage of knowing what is natural, specifically in terms of such standard introductory phrases. I’m genuinely interested in knowing if my “theory of incorrect evolution” has any merit.

A. Your theory is probably correct, but that doesn’t mean you can do anything about it. An expression evolves because people understand the new meaning and begin to use it that way. In time, dictionaries record the new meaning and resisters begin to look like fuddy-duddies. (Nothing personal, understand.) Webster’s 11th Collegiate says that the adverb “meantime” means “meanwhile,” and that the adverb “meanwhile” can mean “at the same time.” To my ear, “at the same time” could easily convey the meaning “while I’m at it,” or, as your colleague notes, “by the way.” If so, then your expression has already evolved its way into the dictionary, and your Japanese colleague would turn out to have her finger on the pulse of “natural” English.