Oh but I were in poverty!

What does this mean? I can't find this in my dictionary.

I would appreciate it if you could quote some authoriatative source.

  • Please provide context. Where does this sentence come from? Some surrounding text and flowerlike-blossoming-of-hidden-from-our-view information would be helpful. Especially if you want authoritative source. – CoolHandLouis Mar 4 '14 at 15:08

Without the surrounding context, it means if only I were not although it is a fairly archaic structure.

But means: other than, or except for and this is stretching the meaning to say: If I were in another state than in poverty.

I were is a usage of the subjunctive (which is often difficult to see in Modern English compared to other languages, leading some to question its existence). It becomes necessitated by the use of but, particularly in the sense meaning if. See the archaic uses here for some similar examples.

As I've said this usage is fairly archaic. Typically found in older dialogues such as Shakespeare, but the usage may be 19th century. See Ngram here.

An alternate meaning (again without the context), would be Oh, I had been in quite a bit of poverty at that time. This is also a possibility. Only context would really tell you the difference. But, the use of the subjunctive were makes me lean the other direction.

For more on the subjunctive and it's partial disappearance from Modern English, see here.

  • I will search, but it's an archaic usage. Makes it tougher. – David M Mar 4 '14 at 14:45
  • @username901345 No, you would say "Oh but that I had been killed." Give me a moment, and I will formulate a more complete answer to this. – David M Mar 4 '14 at 14:49

I believe it to be an antonym of 'Oh, that I...'.

'Oh that I were rich' means 'Oh, if only I were rich'.

'Oh but I were in poverty' says much the same thing, 'Oh but I' being the opposite of 'Oh that I'.

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