Yesterday, I wrote about the word presently, concluding:
Maybe it’s just an unnecessary word, especially because it means different things to different people and is not always clear from the context.
My wife pointed out to me that was a) vaguely 1984ish and b) wrong.
It was vaguely 1984ish because in that book, the compilers of the Newspeak dictionary were carefully removing all synonyms -- and antonyms for that matter -- after choosing one word to represent an idea. So good, prime, swell, fantastic, great, etc. become just good, or plusgood or doubleplusgood, depending on how good it was. And bad, terrible, awful, woeful, etc. become ungood, plusungood or doubleplusungood. My wife obviously wasn't suggesting I had a Big Brother moment, just that what I said echoed that idea from the book.
Which leads us to b), that is, why I was wrong in declaring it was unnecessary. My wife said she likes presently both because it sounds formal and whimsical and because of its very ambiguity.
So presently could be being used for a certain effect (formality, whimsy). And that's a very valid reason to have a word.
And the ambiguity could be useful, my wife said. Maybe you don't really know that you'll be able to comply with a request immediately, but want to convey that you are trying. (The king summons you, but you are in your boxers and don't know where your good clothes are. "I'll be there presently," you say.)
The point here is not that one should equivocate when the king is calling, but that it's silly to discard words, a trap I've fallen into before. I really do like that English has a wide range of words that have different shades of meaning for the same idea. I just also like making pronouncements.
Still, I think the word should be used carefully. In simple, plain writing like a newspaper article, it's still probably better to say now or soon.