The Grammarphobia Blog

Few and far between

Q: In Jane Smiley’s novel Duplicate Keys, Alice muses about the “fewness” of the friends in her social circle. I drew a blank when I looked up “fewness” in my dictionary. Did this “Pulitzer Prize-winning author” have a copy editor who was asleep at the switch, or is my dictionary inferior?

A: “Fewness” is a very old noun that dates back to Anglo-Saxon times, but you have to search a bit to find it in many modern dictionaries.

The two dictionaries we consult the most, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) list “fewness” as a noun form under their entries for the adjective “few.”

Only a handful of standard dictionaries—Merriam-Webster Unabridged, Random House Unabridged, and Collins—have separate entries for “fewness,” which they define as the state of being small or few in quantity.

The Oxford English Dictionary, which describes “fewness” as “the quality or fact of being few,” dates it from the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (circa 900), where the word is feanis in Old English.

The word “few” is even older, first recorded in the Vespasian Psalter (c. 825), an Anglo-Saxon illuminated manuscript, where it’s fea in Old English.

Similar words are found in other Germanic languages, but the original source of “few” is believed to be the Indo-European root pau-, denoting smallness of quantity or number, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

Although “few” is spelled with an “f” in English and other Germanic languages, Ayto notes, the p of pau survives in French (peu), Spanish (poco), and Italian (poco).

In fact, Ayto adds, the Indo-European root can still be seen in the English words “paucity,” “pauper,” “poor,” and “poverty.”

The expression “few and far between,” meaning few in number and seldom found, showed up in the mid-1600s.

The OED’s earliest citation is from a July 13, 1668, letter by Sir Ralph Verney: Hedges are few and far between.” The letter is cited in Margaret M. Verney’s Memoirs of the Verney Family During the Civil War, published in 1899.

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