Once in a while

I underst& it is an idiomatic usage, but "once" means "one time" và "while" means "in the meantime" , so how can the expression be used lớn refer to lớn a number of different times?

Has "once" or "while" also other, possibly archaic, meanings? I could not find any in online dictionaries.


I think "once in a while" is parallel to lớn expressions lượt thích "once a day," "once in every two months" that also refer khổng lồ periodic events. The expression after "once" tells us how long it is between the different times; the action is done "once" for each of these time periods, but multiple times overall. I know people have made this point in other answers và comments, but maybe rephrasing it this way can help a bit.

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"While" does not just mean "in the meantime." The first definition of while in the Oxford tamquoccola.com Dictionary is

A portion of time, considered with respect khổng lồ its duration; = time n. 1, 2, rarely 4 or 6. Now almost exclusively in certain connections (see below), the ordinary word being time.

We can see a similar use in expressions lượt thích "I"ll be gone for a while" = "I"ll be gone for a time period of indefinite but significant length."

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answered Feb 29 "16 at 3:trăng tròn

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It means one time (at least) in a phối of times or a period of time (a while).

A while is an indefinite period of time. If the condition holds at even one moment during that period then the condition holds for once in a while.

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Update (as suggested by
Cerberos) from comments I wrote here:

"Where is it said that once means "at least one time"?"

"Once" means one time. I added "(at least)" gratuitously. Consider it removed, if you like. The phrase "Once in a while" means one time in an arbitrary (indefinite, nonspecific) time period. As such, it has come to mean repeatedly one such time in one such arbitrary period, that is, multiple arbitrary occurrences in multiple arbitrary time periods. Since the periods are arbitrary, it means, in effect, at least one time in an arbitrary period. If it occurs once in time period A và once in time period B then it occurs twice in the union of A & B, which is another arbitrary time period.

"yours is a bình luận rather than a real answer."

Fair enough. But you seem khổng lồ think that "once in a while" is an idiom, & you wonder about how the idiom evolved. My answer is that a literal reading of once in an arbitrary while suffices. No real evolution ("come to mean") or "idiomatic usage" needed as a hypothesis. Same thing with "once upon a time", although we don"t use "upon" here nowadays, so that is idiomatic now.

"I don"t think the meaning is actually literal as Drew suggests. It should mean "one time in a period of time" not "from time to lớn time"."

Actually, I did not suggest that the meaning can only be literal, i.e., that a literal meaning is necessary. I said that a literal meaning suffices - it can be read literally, and the meaning in that case is what one would expect. And a reading of "from time khổng lồ time" follows from a literal meaning of "one time in a period of time" (because...because...

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I tried to lớn show how the meaning you understvà is related logically to lớn a literal meaning. That relation is as much of an "evolution" as I can come up with, I"m afraid. It doesn"t pretover to be a real, historical evolution but is a logical becoming (relation between concepts). Then again, history can sometimes be underpinned by xúc tích... ;-)