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I understand that the phrase at all means in any way or in the slightest, e.g. What is the opposite of “to stink” (v)? Is there one at all?, or Not bad at all

I don't understand how the individual words come together to make that meaning.

I understand the use of at as a preposition, e.g.

Are there any apples here?

Can be written as

Are there any apples at this place?

But then what meaning does all take on?

Are there any apples at all?

All is not a place, as far as I can see.

I tried to think of at in the sense of rate

Cornering is not hard at 100 km/h

and that sort of makes sense if you take all to be a shortening of all rates

Cornering is not hard at all

but that doesn't seem to fit the generally understood meaning of at all.

Is there a way to break down the phrase at all into its constituent words that adds up to the same meaning?

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2 Answers 2

up vote 5 down vote accepted

‘At all’ means ‘in every way, in any way’ and has been so used for around 600 years. It is now mostly found in negative and interrogative sentences. The ‘all’ element is perhaps self-explanatory. ‘At’ has many uses, not necessarily confined to the location of objects in space and time. They include the now obsolete ‘introducing the reason or consideration’ (OED), which is one possible source for its use in what must now be regarded as an idiom.

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There is, for example, the somewhat archaic at any event, which has been almost totally replaced by in any event. These prepositions don't have very precise meanings, so they can easily be swapped around. –  FumbleFingers Sep 30 '11 at 12:13
    
I think this makes a lot of sense - especially considering the phrase "at least". –  Matt Эллен Oct 4 '11 at 15:14
    
Sure. Prepositions like "at" can have many uses. Like, "We arrived at last." "Last" is not the place that was our destination. "The two co-workers were at odds over how to increase sales." "Leave this room at once!" etc –  Jay Oct 4 '11 at 15:17
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While we could study the origins of the phrase, I think the easy answer is, Don't try to look for literal meanings in idioms like this. There are lots of phrases in common use that don't make a lot of sense if you study them piece by piece.

Like, "She was dressed to the nines" means "she was dressed in very fancy clothes". Exactly what this has to do with the number nine I have no idea. "This country is going to pot" means "things are getting very bad". What does that have to do with a cooking implement? Etc.

In some cases you can trace such phrases back and find some sensible origin: a word used to have a different meaning, it is a shortened form of a phrase that as a whole makes sense, etc. Often you hear very fanciful, invented explanations.

If you're a student of language, it can be amusing to study. If you just want to learn to speak understandable English, don't worry about it. Just learn it.

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Well, Jay, I am interested in the history of the usage of English words. As Barrie's answer shows, at had a meaning I was heretofore unaware of. If I don't ask the questions I have no hope of finding out. –  Matt Эллен Sep 30 '11 at 16:24
    
Fair enough. I'd gotten the impression from your question that you were just trying to learn English. If the intent was to discuss etymologies, than my answer is beside the point. –  Jay Oct 4 '11 at 15:13
    
Oh dear! I'll have to brush up on my writing if I'm giving that impression. –  Matt Эллен Oct 4 '11 at 15:15
    
That wasn't meant to be a criticism! :-) I'm new to this forum and many posts appear to be non-native-English speakers attempting to learn English -- some very literate and some not -- and the wording of your post just led me to jump to the conclusion that you were in that category. A "wait, these rules do seem to make sense" question. –  Jay Oct 4 '11 at 15:24
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