What the origin of but as it is used in following sentence?

...as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth

Is it meaning is close to yet or although or it has independent meaning?

  • 2
    Almost-identical question but while the answers explain the meaning they don't show the history. A good answer here would make this question the duplicate target.
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Mar 29 at 9:40
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    I have searched Etymonline without success in the case of this particular usage, where it means something like 'only', where reason says it must be short for something like '<nothing> but' with the word 'nothing' understood. Dictionaries like Cambridge English explain what it means, but without suggesting when or how it arose. The Oxford English does suggest that this particular usage was first used in the 1930s, but I am not sure what the evidence is. The Old English origin in the word 'butan' or 'buton' meaning 'except' is as far as I can get, apart from pure inference.
    – Tuffy
    Commented Mar 29 at 10:32
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    "But" means "only" here. The sense "Nothing but, no more than, only, merely" is late Old English according to the OED. My Old English isn't good enough to understand all the examples but they have "butan I gear & III monþas" (but one year and three months) c. 1000 and "buten lutel" (but little) c. 1200. The OED says this is somehow related to the use as a conjunction introducing an exception. It's impossible to exactly trace the evolution of meanings in Old English and especially between Old and Middle English due to the lack of written evidence but the OED is definitely the way to try it.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Mar 29 at 11:34
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    @Tuffy: 1930s? This from 1813 looks like the same usage as cited above: he had but recently begun to cultivate an acquaintance with the Greek theatre. Commented Mar 29 at 11:51
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    The etymology seems easy to guess intuitively. The basic meaning of "but" is "other than", but in this usage it means "slightly less than", which is a specific case. It's not common for words to develop either more general or more specific meanings.
    – Barmar
    Commented Mar 29 at 16:23

1 Answer 1


But means just in Dickens’s sentence:

As much mud in the streets as if the waters had just newly retired from the face of the earth . . .

The OED lists this sense as obsolete (obsolete now but still kicking around while Dickens was alive):

but preposition, adverb, conjunction, & noun2
2.b.† Neither more nor less than, absolutely, actually, just, even. Sometimes merely as a filler. Obsolete (regional in later use). a1400–1844
See also but now.
P.4. but now: just now, only this moment. Now rare a1450–
Source: Oxford English Dictionary (login required)

Given the timeline and Dickens’s affinity with all things Shakespearian, the definition fits. Here are a couple of older usage samples of but newly:

The dangers of the dayes but newly gone,
Whose memorie is written on the Earth
—Henry IV, Mr. William Shakespear’s Comedies, Histories and Tragedies. (William Shakespeare, 1685)

But in the Coffin that had the Bookes, they were found as fresh, as if they had beene but newly Written, being written in Parchment, and covered over with Watch-Candles of Wax, three or foure fold.
Sylua Syluarum: Or A Naturall Historie. In Ten Centuries. (Francis Bacon, 1631)

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