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The literal meaning of the phrase in so many words doesn't make sense to me, and its use carries ambiguous connotations.

Can anyone explain its origin?

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4 Answers

up vote 3 down vote accepted

The phrase "in so many words" means:

Fig. exactly; explicitly; in plain, clear language.

The phrase was already in use by 1674, in A supplement to the morning-exercise at Cripple-gate:

As to its exact origins, it is possible that there was a shift from the literal meaning "in as many words" in which so many became a reference to some unknown number. There is not, however, an article I could find which explains when or why this phrase came into existence.

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The literal meaning is ‘in exactly that many words’. This is actually a weaker statement than the idiomatic meaning, which is ‘in exactly these/those words, or such a close equivalent that nothing else could have been meant’, but the latter seems a pretty straightforward extension of the former, and I see no ambiguity of connotation. E.g., ‘He said in so many words that he wouldn’t run for office’ means that he stated unequivocally that he would not run for office, very likely using pretty much those words: ‘I will not run for office’, ‘I am not going to run for office’, etc. It can’t mean anything else.

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Thefreedictionary has a couple of meanings for the idiom in so many words.

  1. In precisely those words; exactly: hinted at impending indictments but did not say it in so many words.
  2. Speaking candidly and straightforwardly: In so many words, the weather has been beastly.

It carries an idea of being explicit and understood without any doubt, as opposed to vague. In comparison, the negative, more common use, not in so many words implies vagueness and room for an alternate interpretation or meaning. Also from thefreedictionary:

'Did he say we could stay with him?' 'Well, not in so many words, but that's definitely what he meant.' He told me, in so many words, to mind my own business.

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The OED says "in so many words" is after classical Latin totidem verbīs, meaning in that exact number of words, or those exact words, or in words expressing the same meaning.

Their first quotation is by William Fulke in 1580:

As though a man might not make a true distinction in disputation, but the same must be founde in so many wordes, in scripture, doctor, or councell.

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