How do the principal 2021 meanings of "but" relate, if any, to its original meaning of "outside"? E.g. how does "no more than; only" appertain to "outside"?


  1. Used to introduce a phrase or clause contrasting with what has already been mentioned.
  1. [with negative or in questions] Used to indicate the impossibility of anything other than what is being stated.
  1. [archaic with negative] Without it being the case that.


  1. No more than; only.

but [OE]

But originally meant ‘outside’. It was a compound word formed in prehistoric West Germanic from *be (source of English by) and *ūtana (related to English out). This gave Old English būtan, which quickly developed in meaning from ‘outside’ to ‘without, except’, as in ‘all but me’ (the sense ‘outside’ survived longer in Scotland than elsewhere). The modern conjunctive use of but did not develop until the late 13th century.

Word Origins (2005 2e) by John Ayto. p 84 Left column.

  • You can negotiate its value.
    – Hot Licks
    Jun 1 at 0:00
  • 1
    Please search the site properly before posting a question. english.stackexchange.com/questions/65780/… , english.stackexchange.com/questions/9235/… Jun 1 at 19:32
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    @MarcosGonzalez Please read questions properly before rebuking me, and linking unrelated questions. Your linked questions aren't about, don't even tag, etymology! They don't even include any info on the etymology of but.
    – Coosf
    Jun 3 at 2:25
  • @hims If you read the questions carefully (and the answers proffered to your question so far), you would realize that what you call "original meaning" of 'but' is still current. Jun 4 at 11:19

'But' moves you "outside of reach" of the logical options (e.g. I would help you, but ... reasons that move me 'out of reach' of helping you.)


In the OED, there are many senses of the word "but" defined.

Branch A. refers to "but" as a preposition, and the question here prepares us for definition A.1.

Outside of; (in later use often spec.) towards the outer part of (a house) (cf. ben prep.); (also, Scottish) along, across. Now Scottish.

A.3. brings us closer to a more familiar sense, although all citations are from Old English:

Leaving out, barring, with the exception of, except, save.

The OED writes this in a note:

In later use not distinguishable from use as a conjunction (see branch C.).

Branch C. refers to "but" as a conjunction.

C.I.: In a simple sentence, introducing a word, phrase, or (rarely) a clause which is excepted from the general statement. With the exception of, apart from, except, save.

Here is an example of a contemporary citation:

2013 Arab Stud. Jrnl. 21 96 My heartfelt thanks go to the following readers for their helpful engagement with this essay, however, none but I bear responsibility for its frailties.

Branch B. defines the word as an adverb. Sense B.2.a. is the sense addressed in the question, "only."

Nothing but, no more than, only, merely.

A note links this to senses under C.I., implying how they are related:

This use differs from that of sense C.[I] 1 only in the absence of any negative word

Here is an example citation from this sense:

2008 J. C. Quick et al. Managing Executive Health i. 15 It was beneficial, provided that the amasser of the wealth realized that he or she is but a steward.

Following this logic, we see how omitting the negative from "but" where it means "outside of" yields the sense that means "only."

It is nothing but X

It is nothing outside of X

It is but X

It is only X.

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    Question about etymology answered with modern 21st century usage examples, deserves a downvote for poor methods. What about Middle English though?
    – vectory
    Jun 5 at 8:22
  • Most of this is straight out of the OED. The usage examples are just supplemental. Jun 7 at 18:40

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