Search us!

Search The Word Detective and our family of websites:

This is the easiest way to find a column on a particular word or phrase.

To search for a specific phrase, put it between quotation marks.






You do not need to be logged in to comment.

You can comment on any post without being registered on this site.

You do not need to use your real name (although it would be nice to do so) or your real email address.

All comments are, however, held for moderation, so it may take a day or two for yours to appear.

Almost all comments are approved (spam and personal abuse being the primary exceptions), but approval of a comment does not indicate agreement.



shameless pleading


Duck, chicken!

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.

Leave a Reply




You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Please support
The Word Detective

(and see each issue
much sooner)

by Subscribing.


Follow us on Twitter!