Why does save also mean

other than : but or except "We had no hope save one."

except for the fact that : only —used with that

but, except —used before a word often taken to be the subject of a clause

"Little is known about his early years save that he left home when he was very young."

This question is specifically about the origin/etymology of this particular meaning of the word.

Merriam-Webster just says

Middle English sauf, from Anglo-French salf, sauf, from Latin salvus safe, healthy; akin to Latin solidus solid, Greek holos whole, safe, Sanskrit sarva entire

I am able to connect solid or whole or entire with the common meaning of safe/save, but how is it connected with except/but/unless?

Supplementary question: is this usage of save now archaic? M-W doesn't say so, but I have never heard it used in a live speech.

  • Well I know sauf is French for except, probably for a similar reason.
    – bcc32
    Commented Feb 26, 2015 at 0:29
  • Given at Online Etymology Dictionary. Commented Feb 26, 2015 at 0:33
  • 2
    @Edwin Etymonline doesn't really give anything much. It just says that the English development parallels the French and gives examples of both meanings. It doesn't answer this question, which is how you get from the literal meaning ‘safe’ to the prepositional meaning ‘except for’. Commented Feb 26, 2015 at 1:31
  • @Janus In the light of your extended answer, I'll retract the close vote, though the brief Etymonline statement should have been quoted by OP. Commented Feb 26, 2015 at 11:19

2 Answers 2


Your last question first: no, save in this sense is not archaic. It’s not as common as except, but it occurs in natural speech, especially as part of the phrase save for.

As to why save (for) means ‘except (for)’, that is a relatively long story.

Originally, in mediaeval French, sauf/salf (masculine) and sauve/salve (feminine) were used as adjectives meaning ‘whole, intact, safe’ only. All the way back since Latin, this adjective was frequently used in an absolute manner to mean ‘with [X] safe/whole/intact’: in Latin, this was an absolute ablative, and you had expressions like salvā fīdē ‘with your faith intact/without violating your faith’. In French, where the ablative was long gone, the absolute usage was simply just the plain form, but still originally inflected to fit the number and gender of the noun it qualified: sauf sun ordre ‘with his order intact/not disobeying his order’ vs. sauve sa grace ‘with his grace or lordship intact/not disobeying or disrespecting (etc.) his grace or lordship’.

During Middle French, the inflection to match the noun modified started to be lost, and the masculine singular form sauf was used, becoming more and more preposition- or conjunction-like.

The meaning also shifted: from indicating that something was kept intact and unviolated, it came to be used as a polite way of expressing disagreement, similar to pace in modern academia: it meant something like ‘while not meaning any violation towards X’, ‘if X will excuse me saying so’, etc.

From this meaning came a more abstract meaning of the object of save, which was now clearly a preposition. This object now started being considered as having been removed from harm’s way, having been taken apart to avoid violation or unwholesomeness, as it were. The thing that was ‘safe/save’ in this sense was therefore now simply considered as not being included in the main group. The overlapping sense can be envisioned in an example phrase like “All the men were killed in the war, save one”: the one man is removed from his group of belonging (“all the men”) and is considered apart, immune to the effects of the sentence upon that group. He is both literally safe from being killed in the war and ‘safe’ from whatever happens in the sentence, so to speak.

This nuance of meaning was probably blurred out quite quickly, and only the notion of the object being seen as something that had been taken out of its group and was seen as an exception survived, which is basically the meaning both save and except has today.

[This answer is based on and fleshed out from the definitions and etymological notes given in the OED article for save (requires subscription).]

  • 2
    WOW! :) And you deserve extra credit for the sentence “All the men were killed in the war, save one” :) Commented Feb 26, 2015 at 8:25
  • I edited your post marginally and apologise for any offense. I simply wished to clarify {the object of save} vs save, in that long sentence. Please feel free to refine.
    – user50720
    Commented Jun 22, 2015 at 3:28
  • Also, did you intend that length for your last independent clause (and only the notion of the object ...) ?
    – user50720
    Commented Jun 22, 2015 at 3:35

I had someone use "save for" in an email recently. And I thought it was odd. I actually wasn't sure what it meant. And last Sunday at church, we sang the hymnal "Be thou my vision" and it uses the term "save for" also. But it's a really old hymn. So, yes, I find it archaic.

  • The OP is asking for the entomology for this usage. Was that hymn the first example of of using "save for" to mean "except"?, or can you find earlier examples?
    – Jay Elston
    Commented Aug 21, 2018 at 15:54
  • 1
    "Save for" as "except" is not uncommon at all, although it's certainly more common in writing that is more formally written. Commented Aug 21, 2018 at 17:31
  • 2
    I see you're the victim of a question that needs some work. The question really shouldn't be "do you perceive this usage of save as archaic". The reason is that Stack Exchange is for expert answers, not for polling, or asking for opinions or discussion. The downvotes on your answer reflect that what we're looking for is "expert" or "right" answers. We do have a great place for discussion, though -- our English Language & Usage Chat.
    – MetaEd
    Commented Aug 21, 2018 at 21:54
  • @MetaEd I wouldn't recommend chat. Some users behave rudely and cruelly when they think they are among friends.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Aug 21, 2018 at 22:07
  • be-thou-my-vision.com/be_thou_my_vision_lyrics_words.html uses save that not save for
    – k1eran
    Commented Aug 22, 2018 at 0:31

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