Thursday, August 22, 2013

Language of Confusion: Adverbs

Adverbs tend to be versions of words that end in -ly, like happily or smartly. If you want to find the histories of those words, all you have to do is look at the root. But you can’t forget the non-ly adverbs—more, less, always, just, often, and are very favorite, very.

More: comes from the Old English mara, same meaning. Mara is what’s known as a comparative. In the same way good is related to better, mara is related to the Old English micel, or great. And believe it or not, micel has a modern form: mickle, a never used word for large (it’s not even in Word’s dictionary).

Less: was laes/laessa in Old English, and like more, was a comparative of laes—small. It comes from the Proto Germanic lais-izo, smaller, and the Proto Indo European leis, small.

Always: showed up in the mid-fourteenth century, although back in Old English it was two words: ealne weg, which literally meant all the way. Fun fact: it used to be just alway. The s appeared in the early thirteenth century, although the non -s form didn’t disappear until just the nineteenth century.

Just: the righteous form of just showed up in the late fourteenth century but the adverb didn’t show up until the mid-sixteenth century. Middle English also used just as a word for exactly or precisely, and Modern English then morphed it to barely.

Often: Showed up in the early fourteenth century as a form of oft that went before vowel sounds, much like a and an. But unlike a and an, often ended up replacing oft almost completely.

Very: these days we mostly use very as emphasis (it’s not just bad, it’s very bad) rather than extremely or high degree like it meant originally. Very showed up in the mid-thirteenth century as verray, which at first meant real or genuine but switched to actual or utter in the late fourteenth century. You might remember that I mentioned very in the truth post a few weeks ago as having descended from the classical Latin verus. To be more specific, verray descends from the Anglo French verrai, the Old French verai, Vulgar Latin veracus, and the classical Latin verax (truthful), which is from verus.

Tony Jebson’s page on the Origins of Old English


  1. Very is an evil word. One I have to cut often.
    And more is always better, right?

  2. For me, JUST is the word I often have to cut. It always tries to insinuate itself into every paragraph, often more than once! I have to try very hard to use it less.

    There -- I think I used them all, didn't I? ;)

    Fascinating etymology! I love seeing how the use and meaning and spelling of words change over time. I try to share this with my students to explain strange pronunciations and spellings -- but sadly they are less interested than I am.

  3. I'm always finding that "very" and "just" have crept into my sentences! Thanks for the etymology lesson! :)

  4. Often before vowels, oft otherwise. Wow. That's fascinating.

    I remember a day when some middle school students had to come up with adverbs (or locate adverbs, or something like that), and I gave them the "ly" rule. So, they came up with "fly" and "sly".

  5. I'm not one to use 'very,' but I have to cut 'just' on edit quite a bit.

  6. I overuse very and always. I need to edit them out.

  7. My Latin was always vulgar. At least that is what my high school Latin teacher kept telling me! :-)

  8. Very's a word I have to watch that I don't use too often.


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