Dear Word Detective: Decades back, at a college Quiz Competition, the question was “How many is few?” No one got it right, so the Quizmaster informed us that originally, from Old English, the word actually meant “eight.” I have never been able to verify that, and have always wondered since. Maybe you can help? — AJ.
Hmm. Decades back, eh? Chances are that this guy’s trail is pretty cold, but if you’d be willing to underwrite a certain private detective I know, we might be able to nail this clown with a banana cream pie in the kisser within two weeks, tops. “Quizmaster” my foot. I’ll bet he got his gavel and gown from one of those mail-order know-it-all outfits.
As you probably have gathered, your Quizmaster must have matriculated in a parallel universe, because “few” never meant “eight,” “nine,” “fourteen” or “five billion,” not even in Old English, where all the truly wacko word origin stories seem to be born. Incidentally, if you ever do catch up with that guy, ask him why there aren’t any boats in that story. Anybody knows you can’t have a good linguistic urban legend without sailing ships.
The true story of “few” is far more interesting than any story about it meaning “eight.” In the beginning there was the Indo-European root “pau,” which denoted “smallness” in either number or size. “Pau” has dozens of descendants in English today, including such disparate words as “pauper,” “poverty” and “poor” (little money), “pony” (small horse), “pullet” (young chicken), and even “pusillanimous” (meaning “cowardly,” from the Latin “pullus,” young of an animal). “Pau” even gave us the name for the game of “pool,” which apparently developed from a contest in which the prize was a “pullet.” Apparently the original form of the game, known as “jeu de la poule” (“the hen game”) in the Middle Ages, involved, I kid you not, throwing things at a chicken. Incidentally, although this is the same “pool” we use when we “pool” our funds to buy dinner, it is an entirely separate word from the “small body of water” kind of “pool.”
The Old English descendant of the Indo-European “pau” was “feawe,” later contracted to “fea,” which became our modern “few.” The primary meaning of “few” has always been “not many” or “a small number.” But “few” has never designated a specific number.