The Grammarphobia Blog

An ‘utter’ and an ‘utter’

Q: Is the “utter” that means “absolute” related to the “utter” that means to “make a sound”?

A: Yes. As John Ayto explains in his Dictionary of Word Origins, “English has two distinct words utter, but they come from the same ultimate source—out.”

In Old English, the adjective “utter” (spelled úteraúterra, úttera, etc.) was the comparative form of “out” (spelled út).

So “utter,” Ayto explains, “morphologically is the same word as outer.”

In Anglo-Saxon times, “utter” meant “farther out than another” or “forming the exterior part or outlying portion” of something, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest Old English example in the OED is from King Ælfred’s Laws (900): “ðæt uterre ban bið þyrel” (“the utter edge of the hole”).

The word “did not begin to be used as an intensive adjective until the 15th century,” Ayto writes.

The first Oxford example for “utter” used intensively to mean absolute, complete, total, and so on is from Generides, a Middle English verse romance dated around 1430: “This wer to vs … an vttir shame for euermore.”

Meanwhile, the verb “utter” meant to make a sound or to say something, when it showed up in the 1400s. (An early sense, now obsolete, was to offer something for sale.)

The OED says the verb comes partly from út, Old English for “out,” and partly from uteren, Middle Dutch for “to drive out, announce, speak.”

The earliest Oxford example for “utter” in its sound-making sense is from a book, written around 1400, on the founding of St. Bartholomew’s Church in London: “the vtteryng of his voice begane to breke.”

The first OED citation for “utter” in its speaking sense is from Twenty-Six Political and Other Poems (circa 1444), by John Lydgate: “Yiff thow art feerffulle to ottre thy language.”

We’ll end with a recent example of the adjective from an Aug. 28, 2017, headline on the website of the magazine Inc.: “Texas Businesses React to ‘Utter Devastation’ of Hurricane Harvey.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.