The Grammarphobia Blog

The some of its parts

Q: Why do we use the word “some” when we approximate a number instead of, say, “about” or “nearly” or any of the other appropriate terms? Also, is this use of “some” related to “sum”?

A: English has a humongous number of words—hundreds of thousands, depending on how you count them—so it’s not surprising that we have a lot of ways to approximate a number.

The word “some” (originally spelled sum in Old English) has been used “with numbers to indicate an approximate amount or estimate” since Anglo-Saxon days, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED adds that “some” here is acting like an adverb “with the sense of ‘about, nearly, approximately.’ ”

The earliest published reference in the dictionary for this usage is from King Alfred’s translation (circa 888) of Boethius’ De Consolatione Philosophiae.

The use of “about” in this sense also dates from Anglo-Saxon days, but “nearly” didn’t show up in English until the 16th century. And it took another century for it to mean approximately.

As for “approximately” itself, this is the real newbie and didn’t show up in English until the mid-19th century.

You also asked whether “some” is related to “sum.”

Although “some” was spelled sum in Old English, as we noted above, the modern words “some” and “sum” aren’t related.

“Some” has cousins in many old Germanic languages, including Old Frisian, Old Saxon, and Old Norse. It may ultimately come from the Sanskrit sama (every, any).

“Sum,” on the other hand, entered English in the late 13th century. We got it from the Anglo-French summe or somme, but it ultimately comes from the Latin summa (total number or amount).

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