The Age of ‘Nevertheless’
Historically, the most striking difference between nevertheless and nonetheless is how much older nevertheless is. Samuel Johnson includes it in his original Dictionary of the English Language (1756):
NEVERTHELESS. ad. [never the less.] Notwithstanding that. Bacon.
That last notation means that Johnson found an instance of the word in Francis Bacon’s works; Bacon died in 1626. And it appears in Google Books search results going at least as far back as Injunctions Given by the Queens Majesty, Concerning Both the Clergy and the Laity of this Realm (1559):
- Also, For as much as variance and contention is a thing that most displeaseth God, and is most contrary to the blessed Communion of the body and blood of our Saviour Christ, Curates shall in no wise admit to the receiving thereof any of their cure and flock, which be openly known to live in sin without repentance, or hath maliciously and openly contended with his Neighbor, unless the same do first charitably and openly reconcile himself again, remitting all rancor and malice, whatsoever controversie hath been between them. And nevertheless, the just titles and rights they may charitably prosecute before such as have authority to hear the same.
- Also, That they shall take away, utterly extinct and destroy all Shrines, coverings of Shrines, all Tables, Candlesticks, Trindals, and Rolls of Wax, Pictures, Paintings, and all other Monuments of feigned Miracles, Pilgrimages, Idolatry an Superstition, so that there remain no memory of the same in walls, glass-windows, or elsewhere within their Churches and Houses, preserving nevertheless, or repairing both the walls and glass-windows ; and they shall exhort all their Parishioners to do the like, within their several Houses.
The Youth of ‘Nonetheless’
But Johnson does not have an entry for nonetheless—and neither do the various Webster’s dictionaries published between 1806 and 1960. In fact, the first Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary to include an entry for nonetheless is the Seventh Edition (1963), with the briefest of definitions:
nonetheless adv : NEVERTHELESS
That’s not to say that the phrase “none the less” does not long predate the twentieth century. A Google Books search for “none the less” turns up matches from the early 1700s, such as this example from A Review of the Affairs of France (March 13, 1705):
First, This Gentleman begs the Question, That there being so much Yarn Spun in Yorkshire, there is none the less Spun anywhere else.
And so many Stuffs made in London, there is none the less made in Norwich.
And many later matches are structured along similar lines, like this one from The National Preacher (February 1832):
Man sustains two relations to God. He is a moral agent, that is, susceptible of obligations, and he is dependant on God for sanctifying impressions. In the former relation he is active, in the latter he is passive. These two relations are almost entirely independent of each other. That is to say, we are none the less dependant for being under obligations ; and on the other hand, we are none the less bound to believe because faith is " the gift of God," and none the less bound to love because love is " the fruit of the Spirit.”
And this one from George Aiton, “The Purpose of English in the High School” (read November 1896, and reprinted from School Review 1897):
A bowlder is none the less granitic because gray lichens fleck its sides. Gibraltar is none the less a fortress because wild vines festoon its precipices. Longfellow is none the less great because blue-eyed banditti trampled over his dignity. The human heart is none the less true to stern and difficult duty because a little of the beauty and of the pleasure of life has crept into it.
And this one from Max Lerner, Ideas Are Weapons: The History and Uses of Ideas (1939):
It is no historical accident but a matter of cultural logic that a Field should grow where a Morgan does; and a Brandeis is none the less organic a product of capitalist society than is a Debs. If the contrast between the first pair and the second is precipitous it is none the less contrast and not contradiction.
In each of these instances, “none the less” does not mean “nevertheless”; it means “not any less.” In the Lerner quotation, however, you can see how the second instance of “none the less” might be taken to mean “nevertheless,” whereas the first instance of “none the less” simply could not be understood that way. This seems to be what occurred with the one-word form nonetheless when it emerged in the first half of the twentieth century. For example, from Noel Busch, “Donald Nelson,” in Life magazine (July 6, 1942):
During the years when Nelson was practicing it as diligently as possible, U. S. business was undergoing a most extraordinary experience. Since, in effect, business is the U. S., efforts to belittle it patently constitute a sort of treason. Nonetheless, shortly after the last war apparently animated by an involved kind of masochism, U. S. intellectuals began not only to belittle but to berate, bedevil and belabor business by every means that came to mind. … Fundamentally, the question of whether U.S. business is good or bad is about as realistic as the question of whether U.S. air is good or bad. Nonetheless, by 1932 precisely this question had become the chief issue in a presidential campaign.
Changes in Frequency Over Time
An Ngram chart for the years 1800 through 2008 for the terms “nevertheless” (the red line), “never the less” (the yellow line), “nonetheless” (the blue line), and “none the less” (the green line) shows how the frequency of “none the less” has dropped in the past 80 years as the frequency of “nonetheless” has risen:
In addition, the frequency of “nevertheless” has taken a hit during the same time period, which suggests that in some of instances where people might have used nevertheless in the past, they may now be using nonetheless instead. If so, this state of affairs may provide another indication that the two terms now mean virtually the same thing.