Sunday, April 5, 2015


My method of organizing my life largely consists of writing things down on random scraps of paper and then finding them later and not being able to decipher the increasingly wretched scrawl that is my handwriting. Such was the case a couple of minutes ago, when I was getting ready to toss a long list of things and noticed that on the list there was a couplet of sorts:

Just a man
A just man

Song lyrics? A judgment on someone? A story idea? And then I remembered that I wrote it down after noticing one of those nightmares of English that I'm sure impedes progress for non-native learners. Two short phrases with all the same words meaning completely different things.

In case any such are reading here, "just a man" means only a man, while "a just man" is a fair one, or one living by ideas of justice.

How did this discrepancy come about?

When "just" came into the English language towards the end of the fourteenth century, it meant, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, "righteous in the eyes of God; upright, equitable, impartial; justifiable, reasonable," which is more or less what one sense of it is today. It went back through the usual Old French (juste) to the Latin ius which had more of an emphasis on legal right and law. The Old Latin was ious, and the Online Etymology Dictionary tells us that was perhaps literally "sacred formula", and that it was a word found only in Latin but not in general Italic and originated with religious cults concerning themselves with purity.

The second sense, comes out of the first. Originally, the adverb "just" meant "exactly, precisely, punctually," and I think that meaning still has remnants in our language, although I can't think of examples at the moment. The Online Etymology Dictionary gives Kipling credit for the term "just so", the Just-So Stories coming out in 1902. But Kipling meant "exactly so", not "only so". So how did that change come to pass?

A discussion on the website English Language and Usage gives us some idea of this, I think.

How did the adverb evolve from meaning exactly to merely?
It's not so much an evolution into as an
accession of a new meaning. As Peter Shor pointed out in his Comment above, this is a logical extension. OED 1's first citation for its sense 5, "no more than; only, merely; barely", is right on the cusp:
1665 R. Hooke Microgr. vii. 38 Distilled water, that is so cold that it just begins to freeze.
It's a very small step from "exactly to this point, and no further" to "no further than" or "no more than".
1739 Chesterf. Lett. (1774) xxxvi. 125 He can just be said to live, and that is all.
They then go on to discuss a similar dynamic at play with the word "merely", which originally meant "wholly", the meaning it had for Shakespeare. I am fascinated by these "logical tendencies" when it comes to the drift of words.


  1. How about Goldilocks and the bed and porridge she found just right?

    "Just" and its evolving meanings always remind e of the vicissitudes of "nice." Have you written a "nice" post?

  2. Goldilocks found the porridge exactly right which I think is one of the earlier meanings.

    Nice would be a good one to take on. Even in its most positive sense it seems a little flat.

  3. Though in the flat sense, it has enjoyed a small resurgence in recent years in the form of a one-word exclamation expressing admiration or mild wonderment:

    "I have a date Saturday night with Christina Hendricks."


  4. Woody Allen had some fun with "just" in one of his early comic mock-philosophical essays. He wrote something like:

    "Am I really searching for the just, or just something that look like the just?"

  5. I'm sharing this post with my boyfriend , the linguistics professor. He just so gets a kick out of your posts, Seana. Nice!

  6. Julie and Peter, I don't know if this is "just" Santa Cruz, or if it's a more national thing to say, but instead of "nice!", I often hear the response "Sweet!"

    I'm honored that the linguistics professor deigns to read it. That's both nice and sweet.

  7. Hmm, I forgot what this blog does to comments typed in before one signs in, so here it is again.

    "Sweet!" is not just(!) Santa Cruz thing. It's said here by young men wearing wispy beards and high-crowned, narrow-brimmed fedoras. I've always found it an irritating hipsterism.

  8. It's funny about this kind of stuff. The first person I heard say it, and for a long time the only one, was a former coworker and friend, so I don't really mind it very much.

  9. Maybe the new irritating hipsterism will be "Just!"

  10. Seana, did your friend wear a fedora and, if so he, was he years too young to have been doing so? But yes, it is nice to know that personal sympathy can overcome habits one might otherwise find annoying.

  11. Nancy, fashion may eventually dictate "just" over the now more popular response "ish". Is precision wins over imprecision, that is.

  12. Peter, no, no fedora. But now you mention it, I am kind of surprised that men's hats haven't made a comeback in the wake of Mad Men. I suppose it's hard to pull off a fedora while wearing tshirts and cargo shorts, though.

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  14. Seana: I just now remembered this old post of mine about "just" and its use in Northern Ireland:

    But the very incongruity of a fedora in those combinations could appeal to hipsters. Who ever thought blazers and T-shirts would go together?

    Not that I think everything was better in my day. While pants pulled down to mid-ass is easily is the ugliest fashion trend of my lifetime, the 1970s was the worst decade in American history for haircuts.

    1. I suppose it's not surprising that people can be persuaded to do anything in the name of fashion, but what's maybe more surprising is that a decade or so later, everyone wakes up from the trance and realizes how horrible the trend was.

      And yes, the seventies do have a lot to answer for.

    2. But isn't a horrible fashion trend just as likely to come back as retro chic?

  15. In a word, yes. But I believe that is usually very knowingly, rather than naively.

  16. I would guess that is always knowingly rather than naively. Fashion is capitalism at its purest.

  17. I guess I think teenagers trying new fads tends to be naive rather than knowing. Although you're right that capitalistic forces would always seize the opportunity to profit from it when they can.

  18. Seana, I have not worked out the consumer's role in consumer capitalism just yet. So yes, teens trying new fads may be naive or eagerly seeking approval or a sense of belonging. It's the capitalists who make money by playing to that naiveté and those needs.

    Not that there's anything wrong with that.

  19. How conscious our mimicry of each other is is hard to know. I forgot to look at your Ian Sansome blogpost until just now. In it there's an example of that surprising adaptive mimicry at the end.

    Having just read a Gerard Brennan book and a Sinead Crowley one in succession, I noticed particularly the way the Irish add "so" to the end of the sentence in a way we Americans do not.

  20. I've noticed that use of "so," and also a tendency in Indian speakers of English to place "only" at the end of a sentence, rather than before the word it modifies, as we do. I suspect these quirks reflect syntax of the native language of the speaker's native or ancestral country.

  21. Yes, I think when you start studying other languages even at a fairly basic level some things become apparent about why non-native speakers of English seem to consistently make the same choices in English as other people from their original countries.

  22. Ask an American to imitate a Russian, and he'll probably effect a gruff accent and say something like: "I park car near house," omitting the article because Russian (or so I am told) lacks articles.

    My favorite example is a guess that I made about African languages (and I love the example so much that I may well have mentioned it before). I have read (and heard, of course) that some African American speakers will use progressive aspect where conventional American English would use the perfect. ("I've been knowing him for years" vs. "I've known him for years.")

    One day I read that some West African languages use the progressive more than English does, and a light bulb went on over my head. It's easy to imagine that speech patterns from those languages may linger for generations, long after the speakers have forgotten the original languages.

  23. Yes, I think it would be much more difficult to learn to add an article than it would be to leave it out. To the best of my understanding, Irish doesn't use a or an, for instance, although it does have the in both singular and plural forms.