[Etymonline:] mid-15c., earlier onlesse, from on lesse (than) "on a less condition (than); see less. The first syllable originally on, but the negative connotation and the lack of stress changed it to un-. ...

OED (3rd edn, 2017):

[A.] 2. Forming a conjunctional phrase introducing a case in which an exception to a preceding (or following) statement will or may exist: except if, if..not.

1. How did on a less condition (than) shift to onlesse, and then if not?

2. What and where is the 'negative connotation'?

  • @Mari-LouA I did mean to ask about 'etymology' though, not meaning. I already know that unless = if not. But how does onlesse => if not?
    – user50720
    May 4, 2015 at 17:51
  • 7
    Dude, no need to keep stating that you 'recognise the Etymological Fallacy', you either show by your question that you do, or you don't, stating it doesn't make it so. Also, like many questions lately, there is no real answer to 'how' or 'why', there's only description 'that it has done so'. The 'why' is that things change, usually from one thing to a similar one. Maybe you're looking for a missing link because the gap is too large for you? Maybe you're looking for more details to the etymology? And asking 'why' is a great start, but all there is is 'that' here.
    – Mitch
    May 5, 2015 at 0:17
  • @Mitch In the past, some questions have been closed because the closers erred in thinking that the poster didn't 'recognise the Etymological Fallacy'. Does this help? Yes, to both of your questions: Maybe you're looking for a missing link because the gap is too large for you? Maybe you're looking for more details to the etymology?.
    – user50720
    May 5, 2015 at 4:14
  • @LawArea51Proposal-Commit And questions will continue to be closed when the poster fails to recognize the Etymological Fallacy, as this one does. As Mitch said, simply stating that you've heard there's such a thing does not protect you from such closure; you have to demonstrate through your actions, not your words, that you're avoiding it. An analogy: you're standing in the street, repeatedly stabbing a now-lifeless corpse with a knife. A dozen more lie behind you. A cop walks up, and you say "Now officer, before you start, I know there's a law against murder, but...".
    – Dan Bron
    May 5, 2015 at 10:52
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    @LawArea51Proposal-Commit I didn't close your question. Though I think your interest lies not so much in etymology but using etymology (inappropriately) to try to force words to make sense. I am frustrated by your resistance to acknowledging that you are falling prey to this fallacy, but that doesn't influence my decision to close or not close your questions. In general, I leave them alone.
    – Dan Bron
    May 5, 2015 at 14:57

2 Answers 2


The etymology of unless, much like the similar one of lest, does in fact seem rather puzzling, but the archaic first meaning I found in the OED's 2nd ed. (1989) [3rd ed. (2017) differs] confirmed the theory I came up with right after learning that it derives from on less than:

On a less or lower condition, requirement, footing, etc., than (what is specified). With preceding negative, expressed or implied.

So it started with a wording that still makes sense today:

I won't go to the cinema and watch this stupid film with the children on less than [that] you accompany us!

The actual first recorded use in the OED is from a passage in Maundeville (c. 1400) about the antipodes (see the first sentence under Definition 1):

"But þat may not be vpon less þan wee mowe falle toward heuene."

In modernised English: "But that may not be on less than we may fall toward the sky."
Clearly making sense of upon less is the least of our difficulties understanding this sentence today.

Apparently, as often happens with emphatic ways of expressing something, the idiom on less than became so popular and overused that its meaning detached from the individual words, faded and generalised. Uses of on less than in the generalised sense of if not even without it [= the phrase on less than] following a negated statement were recorded just a few decades after Maundeville.

Once on less than had become a full synonym of if not or except, it was natural to leave out the word than, making the etymology slightly obscure even in the original use case and even more so when not following a negation. The path was paved for wondering if the first word was on or un- as they can sound pretty much the same. (I would also expect that even at this early stage people often dropped the word on altogether, as they still often do with [un]less.)

I think what is meant by the negative connotation of unless that facilitated change of on to un- is that unless is now understood as a synonym of if not. Due to some fuzzy thinking this could in fact have made it appear logical that somewhere there should be a negation in unless. But I personally think a much more important factor will have been that on and less were merged into a single word onless, and that un- is vastly more common as a prefix than on-. I think it's normal and quite common for a rare prefix to be replaced by a common one that has essentially the same pronunciation, regardless of any differences in meaning.

  • +1. Thanks. 1. Would you please clarify in the original use case (in your penultimate para)? Does this contain a typo?
    – user50720
    Jul 7, 2015 at 19:35
  • @LePressentiment: I am not proud of my choice of words "original use case". It refers to "on less". The important point behind both passages was that originally, "on less" could always be understood literally as e.g. in "not ... based on less than ..." or "not ... on less provocation than ...".
    – user86291
    Jul 7, 2015 at 21:07

I don't really see how the etymological fallacy (the mistaken belief that the "true" or "proper" meaning of a word is its oldest or original meaning) relates to current usage of unless.

OED's "etymology" for the word says...

less ... with the prepositions of, in, upon, and on ; the last of these by want of stress1 has been assimilated in form to the prefix un-

Semantically, the specific preposition is fairly irrelevant. Casual/dialectal speakers commonly discard it completely (I have no opinion on whether the apostrophe should be present)...

"I won't go 'less you do, Josh," said Lester.
"You don't have to go less you want to."

The syntax of the usage has obviously changed (apart from "prefixing" with of, in, upon, etc., it used to be possible to follow it with that, than, etc., for example). But personally I can't see that the meaning has really changed much.

The only (very slight) semantic shift I can see is that originally the condition was effectively a minimum (the least thing that's required), but nowadays it's normally used without the speaker being consciously aware of that original nuance (now it's usually the only thing that will do).

1 Odd/dated phrasing by OED. They mean because there's no [spoken] stress [on the syllable].

  • +1. Thanks. Would you please clarify whether your answer discussed the claimed ''negative connotation' (ie question 2 in my OP)?
    – user50720
    May 30, 2015 at 22:43