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The construction of “Known but to God”

What does "but" mean in this case and what other uses is this word used in the same context. I'm trying to explain what this word means but I can't think of any good common use examples with the same meaning.

The clearest word I can think of is "just"

Life is just/only a dream

Example sentences I did think of used "nothing":

I found nothing but junk at the store.

But is this the same meaning?

I found nothing, just junk, at the store?

  • 3
    There's nothing more to say. You've answered your own question. You are correct :)
    – Frantisek
    Commented Oct 12, 2011 at 1:21

2 Answers 2


I've always interpreted phrases of that sort having an entire word (nothing) elided out, as in:

Life is [nothing] but a dream

The popularity trend of the phrase "is nothing but a" versus "is but a" indicates the frequency of the poetic latter formulation is trending down towards that of the former, to a point about 20 years ago where they are nearly equal in occurrence.

  • 1
    Well, I think 'nothing' shouldn't be assumed. It's kind of nostalgic, and nothing turns it into a real downer. I think 'but a dream' is supposed to be ironic, at least, if you want to append that. Commented Oct 12, 2011 at 5:36

According to Free Dictionary, this usage is as an adverb, meaning "merely" or "only".

e.g. Hopes that lasted but a moment.

  • I agree. "Just" also fits, as you suggested, At0mix. Hey, how did you get that weird character on your name? Commented Oct 12, 2011 at 2:36
  • @Wolf copy and Paste, mate. Commented Oct 12, 2011 at 5:06
  • It's a Dutch character. On a Mac, Option+o.
    – OneProton
    Commented Oct 12, 2011 at 7:50

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