but (adv., prep.) : Old English butan, buton "unless, except; without, outside," [...]

I don't know Old English. From the étymons overhead, how did but change semantically to mean

but |adverb| = 1. No more than; only

? What can explain the semantic shift? I didn't understand The Oxford English Dictionary, because English is not my first language :

  1. In sense: Only. An elliptic development of the conjunction: see C. 6.

  2. a. By the omission of the negative accompanying the preceding verb (see C. 4a), but passes into the adverbial sense of: Nought but, no more than, only, merely.

I understand Shakespeare's use in As You Like It, Act 5, Scene 3, Line 29. Thank you all.

  • 6
    I have no researched justification for this, but I always imagined that, for example, "life was but a flower" developed as a contraction for "life was [nothing] but a flower". Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 21:28
  • 1
    The collocation was "{verb}{negative particle} but {something}" meaning "{verb} no-thing except for {something}" [e.g. "he can do nothing but suffer silently"]. The negative particle gets dropped [he can but suffer silently] yet it is as though the negative is not necessary because the {something}-complement [ {verb} but {something}] has come to be "the only possible something". It's as though the negative particle has been subsumed into the "but".
    – TimR
    Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 22:10
  • @DougWarren That's effectively the case. I wrote a similar but more detailed answer in what I believe to be a effectively a duplicate question technically also asking for a comparison with "just" but predominantly concerned with the etymology of "but" in this matter. This actually caused me to revisit my answer, since some down votes caused me to post a correction and now after reexamining my source material, again I realize why I did not write it that way to begin with and had to recant it...
    – Tonepoet
    Commented Jul 25, 2015 at 16:34
  • 1
    @Tonepoet I am sorry, but my question is not a duplicate.
    – user50720
    Commented Jul 27, 2015 at 18:33

2 Answers 2


Both meanings are still in usage, and in fact are really the same meaning with slight variation. Consider the following two sentences:

He took all but one cookie.


I had but one cookie.

They could be rephrased as

He took all except one cookie.


I had nothing except one cookie. OR

I had only one cookie.

The difference is simply in the implied word 'nothing' in the second sentence.


I'm not a scholar of Old English, but I think you're wrong to assume that much changed semantically. The OED gives an example from an Anglo-Saxon calendar from the year 1000 of "but" being used as a preposition meaning "except for one thing."

Swylce ymb fyrst wucan butan anre niht
þætte yldum bringð sigelbeorhte dagas sumor to tune,

So around the first week, less one night,
sun-bright days bring to men summer to town

"The first week excepting for one night" means the first week [in May] excepting for time until one nightfall, or in other words, the first six days. The OED notes that in Old English, the inflections for case will tell whether the expression is to be understood as "Six days except one did bring" or "One day did not bring and six did." The different parsings were no longer available in similar sentences once English lost the inflections, but it's clear that the reference is to "only" one day out of the first week.

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