Many comedians get their material from real life. Mike Myers, the actor who played Austin Powers in the film of the same name, took inspiration from his mother-in-law at the time to create a character for Saturday Night Live. Linda Richman, the character, was a middle-aged Jewish woman with long fake nails, gold jewelry, huge sunglasses, and huge hair. She delivered one of her taglines in an exaggerated New York accent: “Talk amongst yourselves.” Then, she would give her audience an interesting topic to ponder, such as “The peanut is neither a pea nor a nut. Discuss.” Why did she say “Talk amongst yourselves” instead of “Talk among yourselves?” What is the difference between among and amongst?
Old English used the word among. By the time Middle English was being spoken, amongst had developed from among. During this period, the English language added sounds to some words to make adverbs. In modern English, we still have some words like that in everyday use, such as once, always, and unawares. Other words in this category (like amongst, whilst, whence, and amidst) may sound dated to some, but they’re still part of the language.
Amongst and among mean the same thing. Both words are prepositions that mean “into, surrounded by; in the midst of, so as to influence; with a share for each of; in the number, class, or group of; mutually; or by all or with the whole of.” Here are some examples from literature old and new:
“Voldemort himself created his worst enemy, just as tyrants everywhere do! Have you any idea how much tyrants fear the people they oppress? All of them realize that, one day, amongst their many victims, there is sure to be one who rises against them and strikes back!”
—Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, J.K. Rowling
“But the bravest man amongst us is afraid of himself.”
—The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde
“An enemy at the gates is less formidable, for he is known and carries his banner openly. But the traitor moves amongst those within the gate freely, his sly whispers rustling through all the alleys, heard in the very halls of government itself.”
—Marcus Tullius Cicero
“Reality is the leading cause of stress amongst those in touch with it.”
Though the meaning of among and amongst is the same, the frequency of use is not. Among is much more popular than amongst nowadays. The Oxford English Corpus counts about 10,000 mentions of amongst in American writing in their body of publications. However, among appears over 300,000. The difference is less extreme in British English and other international English dialects.
Because it is less common than among, amongst can seem foreign, pretentious, or even incorrect, according to some language blogs. Then again, one blogger quotes Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage as saying that the commentators who call amongst quaint or overrefined are “off-target.”
Mike Myers’ mother-in-law was sitting in the audience many nights as he imitated her. She laughed along as he invited all present to talk amongst themselves. He never proposed whether writers should use among or amongst as a topic, but wouldn’t it make a great discussion? Which do you prefer?