Was the word "few" used exclusively to refer to groups of eight people (or things) at some point of time?

There is a well-known verse in the New Testament which implies the plausibility of such a situation: namely, 1 Peter 3:20. This is what we read therein:

Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.

What do you people know about this?

  • Other than this one verse, do you have other examples of this phenomenon?
    – David M
    Mar 30, 2014 at 5:15

3 Answers 3


No. Few is derived from Old English and has always meant "a small number", without indicating the exact magnitude of that small number.

OED lists it from Bede, c.900.

The verse in question uses that is to define exactly what the indeterminate few means in this case.

  • What it means in that situation, anyway. Another situation, another small integer. Mar 29, 2014 at 22:49
  • @JohnLawler Yes; that's what I meant. I've added clarification: thanks for the prod.
    – Andrew Leach
    Mar 30, 2014 at 9:40

As to the etymology of "few" the hint at Old English is not enough. "few" is connected with French peu ( not much/not many), Italian poco and Latin paucus, in classic Latin mostly plural pauci meaning few. That "few" would have meant a special number such as eight is a theory one will not find in any dictionary, not even in a Latin dictionary. The word was always a general word describing a small quantity.


Few has essentially two meanings in English. It typically means a small amount. But, there is also the ironic usage meaning many in phrases like quite a few.

The etymology of the word in English dates to feawe in Old English. It has had the same meaning since. It in turn comes from ProtoGermanic *fau-, and that from PIE root *pau.

There is no evidence that it has ever referred specifically to eight.

The phrase:

...... wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.

is employing that is, eight as a clarifier for few in this particular sentence.

(I would say the comma is misplaced, and should be after eight.)

You can construct multiple sentences using this particular sense:

I have a few, that is three, books that I read to my children.
I had a few, that is four, pieces of candy.
We went to a few, that is six, different stores before finding what we were looking for.

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