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As far as I (non-native speaker) can tell, these two sentences have the same meaning:

I'm just a humble merchant

I'm but a humble merchant

However I wonder if there is some subtle difference between those two variants I am missing. From the contexts I found the variants in, the one using but seems to be a bit more anachronistic and - when used in a modern setting - seems to have a hint of irony/sarcasm to it? Is there any modern context in which one would use but instead of just for other reasons (maybe indicate belonging to a special social group)?

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    You left out "I am only a humble merchant." – Peter Shor Jul 3 '15 at 14:29
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    If there is any situation in which using only instead of just would make a difference, feel free to elaborate. My main reason for this question however is the usage of but and it's distinctive semantic/contextual function (if there is one) – Konadi Jul 3 '15 at 15:29
  • A you suggest, but is rather literary in this use. You might find it used without irony in a fairy story, but if somebody used it in normal speech, they would probable intend some irony, or at least a joke. – Colin Fine Jul 3 '15 at 16:58
  • Literally they are the same. The one with "but" is archaic, so as Colin says, you wouldn't find it in present usage unless it was meant to be funny. – Maverick Jul 4 '15 at 3:25
  • "But" is more poetic in the above examples. "Just", on the other hand, is a hair more self-deprecating. – Hot Licks Jul 7 '15 at 0:51
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The meaning is roughly understood to be the same. However, the reason it is confusing is that by the meaning of the words alone, it is not. People often abridge their language, even at the cost of clarity. In dialogue, it is done intentionally to indicate some element of the speaker's personality. A low class person might not be particularly careful with words, especially if he is somehow disgruntled or put under pressure by an interrogator he wishes to assuage.

The variant you exemplify is fairly common in fiction. However, properly put, it should probably be one of these few others "I am not/naught/nought/nothing but..." with the word "But" introducing the only alleged exception from being nonexistent. You can see the words "nought but" being used this way in Shakespeare's Sonnet XV or more analogously to your example "I am nought but a dead man" in Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales.

Now my dictionary of choice, the A.D.E.L. 1828 by Noah Webster, does list "Only" as a possible definition but keep in mind, that is only with a footnote to the effect that a nugatory word is indeed omitted. The only sense of the word listed in The Online Etymology Dictionary's entry for "but" is its sense as a sort of exception.

When people introduce themselves, the phrase already implies some amount of humility, since you are nothing other than what you claim to be. This is demonstrated by the somewhat ironic claims of "I am naught but the king's son" and "I am naught but the king's daughter" shown in Chapter VI of A Boy of a Thousand Years Ago by Harriot T. Comstuck. Claiming humbleness expresses the sentiment more clearly but then again, since humility is sometimes a virtue, it might not actually be considered all that humble to claim the trait yourself.

Just on the other hand, is a more literal method of stating you are exactly what you claim and carries fewer direct, albeit sometimes similar, implications about your character.


Citations:

Individual words are linked to definitions from Noah Webster's 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language.

Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms. S.v. "nothing but." Retrieved from The Free Dictionary by Farlex.

The Online Etymology Dictionary: but

"I am nought but a dead man" Chaucer, Geoffrey. (2013). pp. 34-5. The Canterbury Tales: Being Selections from the Tales of Geoffrey Chaucer Into. London: Forgotten Books. (Original work published 1857)

"I am naught but the king's..." Page 1015 of St. Nicholas: An Illustrated Magazine for Young Folks, Volume 28, Mary Maples Dodge, Scribner & Company, 1901

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But and just as an adverb both mean merely. Although but has negative connotations: but is synonymous with nothing but/nobbut and is interchangeable.

I'm but a humble merchant
I'm nothing but/nobbut a merchant

Consider the sentence "I don't have but one pen". The meaning of the sentence remains unchanged with or without the don't. Just is more emphatic than but is dismissive.

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Your impressions are completely correct. They mean exactly the same thing, but the second phrase is outdated, and therefore it can be humorous when used in a modern context.

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