Q: I’m struck by the strangeness of the phraselet “at all.” It seems to pop up everywhere, with a clear connotation but not much denotation at all. Is it shorthand for “at all events”? Seems to me it’s used in cases where the full phrase wouldn’t work at all.
A: “At all” is one of those phraselets (we like your term) that defy literal interpretation.
It functions as an adverb, but taken individually the words “at” and “all” don’t seem to add up to what the idiom means. And what exactly does “at all” mean?
The Oxford English Dictionary says “at all” has been used three ways since it showed up in the mid-1300s: in negative or conditional statements, in interrogative usages, and in affirmative statements (though this sense has generally died out).
When used in negative or conditional “if” statements, according to the OED, “at all” means “in any way,” “to any degree,” “in the least,” or “whatsoever.”
Examples date back to the 15th century and include “stryve not at al” (1476); “no peace at all” (1535); “If thy father at all misse me” (1611); “not at all visible” (1664); “If he refuses to govern us at all” (1849), and “no problem at all” (1975).
When used in questions, the OED says, “at all” has somewhat similar meanings—“in the least,” “in any way,” “for any reason,” “to any extent,” and “under any circumstances.”
Interrogative usages date back to the 16th century, and among the OED’s citations are “what power can it haue on you at all?” (1566); “shall I not vse Tabacco at all?” (1600); “why should he at all regard it?” (1683), and “Why should people care about football at all?” (2008).
But before these negative, conditional, and interrogative usages came into being, “at all” was used in affirmative statements to mean “in every way,” “altogether,” “wholly,” and “solely,” the OED says.
The dictionary’s earliest example, from about 1350, is “I þe coniure & comande att alle” (I thee conjure and command at all).
The affirmative use of the phrase has died out in common usage, however, and now survives only in some regional dialects of American and Irish English.
A 1945 article in the journal American Speech says this affirmative use “lives on in Irish dialect and in colloquial speech in certain parts of America, especially after a superlative.”
The article, which gives “We had the best time at all” for an example, says the usage was reported in Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Oklahoma, elsewhere in the South, and the Midwest.
The Dictionary of American Regional English has 20th-century examples of the affirmative usage from Virginia, Louisiana, West Virginia, Indiana, and Wisconsin.
In affirmative constructions in US regional English, “at all” means “of all” or “only,” according to the DARE.
The regional dictionary cites such examples as “He is the greatest man at all” (1916), “We had the best time at all” (1936), “She’s the finest girl at all” (1942), and “Use one statement at all” (1976).
As for the preposition in “at all,” the OED has this to say: “At is used to denote relations of so many kinds, and some of these so remote from its primary local sense, that a classification of its uses is very difficult.”
Well, we hope this sheds a little light on an idiomatic phrase (or phraselet) that today eludes a word-for-word interpretation.
Finally, a few words about “all,” an extremely useful word.
It functions as many parts of speech: adjective (“all day” … “we all went”); pronoun (“all you need” … “all is well”); noun (“he gave his all” … “the one versus the all”); and adverb (“all dirty” … “it’s all a dream”).
For many centuries, since the days of Old English, the adverb has been used with prepositions in interesting ways to emphasize, affirm, or otherwise modify a verb.
This is where “at all” comes in. But there are many other such phrases, too many to mention in all (there’s one now!).
For example, we use “all” with prepositions to mean “the entire way” or “fully.” The OED’s citations, dating back to early Old English, include quotations from Lord Nelson (“all round the compass,” 1795); Thomas Macaulay (“all down the Rhine,” 1849); and Bob Dylan (“all along the watchtower,” 1968).
We use both “all of” and “of all,” but for different purposes. Similarly we use “in all” and “all in” (as in “I’m all in”). And we often use “all” with “for” and “to”—as in “all to [or for] nought,” “all to hell,” “a free for all,” “all for it,” “all for one and one for all,” and many others.
“All” is also used with words that look like prepositions but are in fact adverbs: “I knew all along” … “they’re all alone” … “go all out” … “look all over” … “fall all round” … “lie all around,” hemmed all about,” and more.
“All” is such an ancient part of the language that its fossilized traces were evident in words from as far back as early Old English, when it appeared as ael– in compounds.
Remnants are seen today in words like “also,” “always,” “although,” “altogether,” “almighty,” and others.
We mentioned above that “all” can be an adjective, a pronoun, a noun, or an adverb. But once upon a time it was a conjunction as well.
The use of “all” as a conjunction is almost unknown today, but a trace of the old conjunction lives on in the word “albeit,” which is derived from the old phrase “all be it.”
With that, we’re all done.