English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Is “many” missing in action?

Q: Have you noticed that the word MANY seems to have vanished from general usage? In place of this vigorous Anglo-Saxon adjective one usually hears or reads the longer word NUMEROUS. How can one account for this phenomenon?

A: We like “many” too, but we don’t think it’s in danger of vanishing anytime soon. Although numerous authors overuse “numerous,” many more apparently prefer “many.”

Searches of Google News for the last month turned up a billion and a half hits for “many” compared with a million and a half for “numerous.”

Why do some writers prefer “numerous” to “many”? We can think of two reasons.

First, “numerous” is longer, and longer words seem to carry more weight with some people than shorter ones. 

You’ve hinted at the second reason.

“Many” dates back to early Old English, while the much younger “numerous” is from Latin. And for centuries, English-speaking pedants have considered Latin borrowings more respectable or “educated” than their Anglo-Saxon counterparts.

As we’ve said before, phooey.

There’s nothing wrong with “numerous” per se. And it’s good to use if you want to avoid too many repetitions of “many.” But there’s nothing wrong with “many” either.

The shorter, older word was spelled monig in Beowulf and other early writings, but it ultimately goes back to the Indo-European root monogho- or menogho-.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says the modern pronunciation of “many” dates from the 13th century and “perhaps arose from association with the unrelated any.”

English acquired the adjective “numerous” by way of the classical Latin numerosus, derived from the noun numerus (“number”).

“Numerous” might have been used in writing as early as 1425, though that usage—from a translation—is questionable, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The first certain documentation in the OED dates from 1567, when the naturalist John Maplet described the female tiger’s brood or litter as “numerouse.”

Originally, “numerous” meant “consisting of many individuals,” the OED says, so it was used in phrases like “a numerous family,” “a numerous brigade,” “a numerous assembly,” “a numerous and powerful force,” and so on.

Then early in the 17th century, “numerous” acquired a new sense, the principal one it has today: to modify a plural noun and mean “many” or “great in number.”

The word was first recorded in this sense in 1622, in The Virgin Martir a Tragedie, by Thomas Dekker and Philip Massinger: “To be parted in their numerous shares.” (Here, “to be parted” means to be made a partner or given a part.) 

This entry from Samuel Pepys’s Diary (1666) is a little easier to follow: “Contriving presses to put my books up in; they now growing numerous.”

Many centuries later, the word is still used in place of “many.” This OED citation is from  Edith Templeton’s novel The Island of Desire (1952): “His reputation was enormous …. Numerous books had been written about him.”

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