Etymology Usage

How much is everything?

Q: I saw this sign at a flea market in Greenwich Village: “Everything in the box 25 cents.” The items in the box were worth a lot more than 25 cents and I don’t think the vendor would have been happy if I took everything and left him a quarter. Shouldn’t he have said “each thing”?

A: The two standard dictionaries we consult the most—The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.)—agree with you.

American Heritage defines “everything” in this context as “all things or all of a group of things.” Merriam-Webster’s defines it as “all that relates to the subject.”

However, we think that most people seeing that sign at the flea market would understand that the vendor really meant each thing in the box.

In fact, that’s what you understood. You realized that if you took everything and left the vendor a quarter, he would have called for Officer Krupke.

Although “everything” now refers to the whole enchilada, it used to mean pretty much the same as “each thing.” And even now there’s a sense of individuality built into the words “every” and “everything.”

For starters, “everything” is a grammatically singular pronoun, which is why we say “everything is” rather than “everything are.” But while using a singular verb, we think of “everything” as meaning more than one thing.

Why is this? As ever, the Oxford English Dictionary has the answer.

“Everything” is a compound formed from the adjective “every” and the noun “thing. And “every,” as the OED explains, is “used to express distributively [that is, one by one] the sense that is expressed collectively by all.”

In fact, “each” and “every” were once very intimately connected. The Old English word for “each” (ælc), first recorded in the ninth century, originally had the sense we now associate with “every.”

The word “every” developed from an Old English phrase, æfre ælc (“ever each”).

Here, the æfre part of the compound was added to intensify the meaning, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology and John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

So æfre ælc had a meaning much like our modern phrases “every single” or “every which.”

Little by little, the word was contracted until the modern spelling “every” appeared at the end of the 14th century.

“When every had ceased to be recognizable as a compound of each,” says the OED, “the two words were at first often used somewhat indiscriminately, but their functions were gradually differentiated.”

Today, Oxford tells us, “every directs attention chiefly to the totality, each chiefly to the individuals composing it.”

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