May I ask what this means: "I didn't know but what there was one gnawing at Grant?" When I look up in the Oxford Dictionaries, "not but what" means "nevertheless". Is the phrase related to the meaning which the Oxford dictionary describes?

Washburne referred himto J.Rusell Jones, a close friend of Grant go Grant and his investment adviser, who brought to the White House Grant's letter pledging that nothing could persuade him to be a candidate for President, particularly since there was the possibility of reelecting Lincon. "You will never know how gratifying that is to me," the President said after reading the letter. "No man knows,when that presidential grub gets to gnawing at him, just how deep it will get until he has tried it; and I didn't know but what there was one gnawing at Grant."

  • What do you think a "grub" does?
    – Hot Licks
    Feb 18 '18 at 13:27
  • bite or chew I think
    – Mankak
    Feb 18 '18 at 14:26
  • I cannot caution you more strongly that you at all costs avoid saying or writing an abbreviation for dictionary as a “dic’ in the way that you have done here, for it will be universally apprehended by native speakers as referring to something you did not intend, the male generative organ.
    – tchrist
    Feb 18 '18 at 16:18
  • Mankak, do you really not see a difference between "not but what" and “but what there was…” ? Feb 19 '18 at 22:37

"I don't know but what" is best replaced with "For all I know," and in fact it connotes even more strongly that the speaker suspects the following is true. It's still in pretty common usage among rural working-class Americans (in pockets, as with most rural colloquialisms). But I believe it was more widespread and less class-based in the mid-1800s.

A few examples:


The presidential "grub" is a euphemism the writer uses for the desire (or "itch" if you will) to run for presidential office being like a grub (insect larvae) eating away at one's insides. Today one is more likely to use the term "bug"

"I didn't know but what there was one gnawing at Grant."

might be better understood if you removed "what",

"I didn't know[,] but what there was one gnawing at Grant."


or added "was".

"I didn't know[,] but what there was was one gnawing at Grant."

  • 1
    In this case a better understanding might be had if you replace "but what there was" with "if there might be": I didn't know if there might be one gnawing at Grant.
    – Jim
    Feb 18 '18 at 17:12
  • 1
    Yep, Jim's interpretation is closer. It's acknowledging the possibility of such a gnawing creature. (Not to be confused with "annoying creature", though I suppose both terms would apply.)
    – Hot Licks
    Feb 18 '18 at 19:42
  • Thank you. Was the expression usually only in the 1860?
    – Mankak
    Feb 18 '18 at 23:45

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