but = 5. {with negative} {archaic} Without its being the case that

OED's longness overwhelmed me. Etymonline neglects this definition.
What bridges the original meaning (of but), with the semantic jumps (which induced the meaning of ‘Without its being the case that‘)?

Please help me dig deeper than definition 5, which I already understand and so ask NOT about. Please expose and explain all hidden, missing semantic drifts and links. How should the etymology be interpreted, to understand how the semantic drifts abstracted and severed from the original literal meaning (of but)?

  • Could you give us an example of such an occurrence? Commented Apr 21, 2015 at 2:36
  • @SlavaKnyazev I'll try. Please spare me a few days to find one.
    – user50720
    Commented Apr 21, 2015 at 4:10
  • How much more connection do you want than other definitions of 'but' include 'without'?
    – Mitch
    Commented May 21, 2015 at 12:29
  • Do you mean to ask "Why does 'but' mean....."? Commented Jul 11, 2015 at 8:45
  • @BrianHitchcock Yes.
    – user50720
    Commented Jul 11, 2015 at 14:08

1 Answer 1


The first example for this usage (in your first reference) is well known and should be clear: "It never rains but it pours". The other two show that "without its being the case that" isn't actually a good definition. There may not be any single English alternative phrase that really works for all such uses of but, but the somewhat non-idiomatic phrase "other than" should come pretty close in meaning in most cases:

It never rains other than it pours. - I.e., it never rains without it pouring as well.

Her Own Tribesmen Never other than Say Her Age Is 300 Years. - I.e., they never ascribe her an age other than (ascribing her) that of 300 years.

I did read the names that one time, and never other than that one time. - I.e., I never read the names other than that one time.

This sense of but appears obviously related to the one in "nothing but the truth". I think it is obvious how this sense could be derived from the meaning outside, which is given by etymonline.com for earlier cognates. In fact, outside works just as well as other than in the third example above and almost works in the first. [edited after comment]

[Added later:]

Maybe it only feels obvious to Germans how outside can evolve into except, since German has a word for except with a very transparent etymology: outside = außen, außerhalb, except = außer. (On the other hand, even in English, without has gone through a similar evolution starting with its original meaning outside that is still somewhat current.)

outside is a simple physical metaphor for without, a non-physical relation. When we are thinking of a certain case or situation, an exception is outside the certain case or situation.

  • Thanks. 1. Would you please enlarge on and explain how this sense could be derived from the meaning outside? It's not obvious to me. 2. How does outside work just as well as other than in the first and third example above? It sounds wrong to write: 'It never rains outside it pours.'.
    – user50720
    Commented Jul 11, 2015 at 2:37
  • +1. Thank you effusively for your support. I hope for others' upvotes for your supernal answer. I edited your post marginally and apologise for any offense. Please feel free to refine.
    – user50720
    Commented Jul 11, 2015 at 14:11

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