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I've recently come across a novel called A most wanted man, after which being curious I found a TV episode called A most unusual camera.

Could someone shed some light on how to use "a most" and whether it has anything to do with "the most"?

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2 Answers 2

"Most" in this context means "very." As in "a very wanted man." It functions as a "superlative."

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I think it's a somewhat dated/quaint usage. There's Paul Simon's 1965 song A Most Peculiar Man, and John le Carré's spy novel mentioned by OP. But the best advice to anyone unfamiliar with the form is probably just to read most as very, and avoid actually using it at all. –  FumbleFingers Oct 8 '12 at 16:08
    
I agree that the usage is dated; it sounds precious or pompous in a modern context. –  itsbruce Oct 8 '12 at 17:30
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+1. It can also mean "almost", which is also somewhat dated/quaint. –  ruakh Oct 8 '12 at 17:33

This is a special kind of absolute superlative. The OED gives as its sense 2 of most adv. the following:

As an intensive superlative qualifying adjs. and advs.: In the greatest possible degree.
For the ceremonial titles, Most Christian, Most Honourable, Most Noble, Most Reverend, etc., see those adjs.

I don’t think it gets used all that very much anymore. One of the examples is:

1710 Hearne Collect. (O.H.S.) II. 351 ― A most vile, stinking Whigg.

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I agree it's not used all that much any more. –  FumbleFingers Oct 8 '12 at 16:18

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