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“All but” idiom has two meanings?
“to be all but X”

He all but ran out of the building

If I understand it correctly (English is not my native language), this sentence means "he ran out of the building", and the "all but" is here to stress the fact that he didn't do anything else (besides running).

That being said, the first time I came across this construction, I understood it the other way round. Eventually, I inferred from context the above meaning, but even today, I still have a feeling that it's somewhat illogical.

Where does this construction come from (and what does it really mean)?

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marked as duplicate by Marthaª, Cerberus, Robusto, kiamlaluno, RegDwigнt Jul 10 '11 at 7:38

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Possible duplicate of “All but” idiom has two meanings? and “to be all but X”. Also related: “nothing but” vs. “anything but” vs. “everything but” and dozens of others but I'm out of space. –  RegDwigнt Jul 8 '11 at 22:14

2 Answers 2

All but means "everything up to but not including."

In practice, it is typically used to mean something like "almost" or "close to." So if he all but ran out of the building, he probably became very agitated and acted like he might run out of the building, but ultimately he did not run out.

Similarly, if you are all but lost, that suggests that you are very unfamiliar with your surroundings, but you would be able to return to a known place with a lot of effort. If you all but flunked that class, you received the lowest possible passing grade, or close to it. And so on.

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the OP seems to be asking "Where does it come from?" –  Joe Blow Jul 8 '11 at 20:50
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All means 'everything'. But means 'except'. So a direct transliteration could be "Everything except". However, I have often heard this word used in the manner of the OP where people say it to refer to what actually happened. "He all but ran out of the building" when he did run out of the building. It confuses me when people use the word like that ;-) –  Vincent McNabb Jul 8 '11 at 22:47
    
@VincentMcNabb: I upvoted your comment. Would you like to render it into an Answer? –  Upvote Law Area 51 Proposal Sep 20 '13 at 6:34
    
@LePressentiment It doesn't answer the question of where the construction came from, so I couldn't bring myself to say it as an answer. –  Vincent McNabb Sep 23 '13 at 7:22

The OED has all but going back to 1598 ("Man all but resembleth God") with the meaning of "almost", "very nearly", etc. As to the origin of the phrase, it does not say explicitly: these are ancient common words with many different senses and so it is quite a difficult task to trace the history.

I think the confusing thing here is what the but is doing, and indeed there are a lot of uses of the word that are quite subtle or literary. Compare 2 Kings 7:4, which in the King James Version reads "...if they kill us, we shall but die", meaning that the only thing that will happen is that we will die (as opposed to some even worse fate). Amos 3:8 has "Who can but prophesy?" meaning nobody is able to do anything except prophesying. These senses seem to have some of the same flavour of your example.

I'm reminded also of this story of someone who replied to a job offer saying "I cannot but accept this offer". He meant "There is nothing I can do, since your offer is so wonderful, except say yes" but was understood to mean "I do not accept": the perils of subtlety.

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