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The context is from Sawney Bean, which I read recently in an omnibus (I found that link on the spur of the moment):

...were afterwards burnt to death in three several fires.

I suppose three was meant, but this use of several stumped me. What did it mean back in 1843?

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  • I just finished reading Last of the Mohicans again, and this phrase is used constantly in that classic. Anyone looking for an example of that phrase used in context, I would point them to that book. From chapter eight; Three several times the scout raised his piece in mercy, and as often, prudence getting the better of his intention, it was again silently lowered. Commented Jan 19, 2023 at 12:22
  • "Three several" also appears in H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, in describing his sighting of creatures moving up a hill in separate locations. The book was written in 1895. Commented Sep 1, 2023 at 2:15
  • @StuartF I upvoted because it is a usage which I am unfamiliar with, regardless if it has been recorded in "a book that gave the different meanings of words!". ELU questions in 2011 were given a lot of leeway back in the day, and users would post relatively easy questions to drum up interest and enthusiasm for a fledging website.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Sep 1, 2023 at 9:05

3 Answers 3

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Although you don't hear it much at all these days, several used to have the additional meaning of distinct or separate. It probably just means "three individual fires" in your example, as distinct from three things being burnt in one larger fire.

From TheFreeOnlineDictionary:

several adj.
2. Single; distinct: "Pshaw! said I, with an air of carelessness, three several times" (Laurence Sterne).

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8

The dictionary entry for several lists the following as one of the definitions:

Single; distinct: "Pshaw! said I, with an air of carelessness, three several times" (Laurence Sterne).

So in this case several doesn't mean a relative number (like a few), but instead that there were three distinct fires.

This unusual definition is related to the etymology of "several":

early 15c., "existing apart," from Anglo-Fr. several, from M.Fr. seperalis "separate," from L. separe (ablative of *separ "distinct"), back formation from separare "to separate" (see separate). Meaning "various, diverse, different" is attested from c.1500; that of "more than one" is from 1530s, originally in legal use.

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6

The other contributors are correct. Several here means separate or distinct.

There is one place that I know of that this usage is still common, and that is in the legal term "joint and several liability." This means that if two or more people enter into a contract together that they are liable for the obligations both as a group, and also as distinct individuals.

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  • 2
    +1 for coming up with the only "current" usage I could possibly have brought to mind too. Commented Aug 5, 2011 at 1:08
  • I can think of Another "current" usage which I heard (a long time ago) when I received my first degree: we convocands described by the dean as being about to receive our "various and several degrees." Commented Feb 15, 2012 at 18:15

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