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The context is from a story I read recently in an omnibus (I found that link on the spur of the moment):

...were afterwards burnt to death in three several fires.

I suppose three was meant, but this use of several stumped me. What did it mean back in 1843?

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3 Answers

up vote 10 down vote accepted

Although you don't hear it much at all these days, several used to have the additional meaning of distinct or separate. It probably just means "three individual fires" in your example, as distinct from three things being burnt in one larger fire.

From TheFreeOnlineDictionary:

several adj.
2. Single; distinct: "Pshaw! said I, with an air of carelessness, three several times" (Laurence Sterne).

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The dictionary entry for several lists the following as one of the definitions:

Single; distinct: "Pshaw! said I, with an air of carelessness, three several times" (Laurence Sterne).

So in this case several doesn't mean a relative number (like a few), but instead that there were three distinct fires.

This unusual definition is related to the etymology of "several":

early 15c., "existing apart," from Anglo-Fr. several, from M.Fr. seperalis "separate," from L. separe (ablative of *separ "distinct"), back formation from separare "to separate" (see separate). Meaning "various, diverse, different" is attested from c.1500; that of "more than one" is from 1530s, originally in legal use.

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The other contributors are correct. Several here means separate or distinct.

There is one place that I know of that this usage is still common, and that is in the legal term "joint and several liability." This means that if two or more people enter into a contract together that they are liable for the obligations both as a group, and also as distinct individuals.

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+1 for coming up with the only "current" usage I could possibly have brought to mind too. –  FumbleFingers Aug 5 '11 at 1:08
    
I can think of Another "current" usage which I heard (a long time ago) when I received my first degree: we convocands described by the dean as being about to receive our "various and several degrees." –  James McLeod Feb 15 '12 at 18:15
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