Q: I have a question about the strange use of “but” in the following letter of Emerson to Carlyle: “Not a reading man but has a draft of a new Community in his waistcoat pocket.” I see no modern definition of “but” that fits here. Is the usage archaic?
A: Yes, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s use of “but” is archaic in that sentence, but the usage is still occasionally seen in contemporary historical novels.
The sentence is from a letter Emerson wrote to Thomas Carlyle on Oct. 30, 1840. In it, Emerson refers to the plans of American social reformers to set up utopian communities inspired by the ideas of the French social theorist Charles Fourier.
The passage is especially confusing because it has principal and subordinate clauses with elliptical, or missing, subjects. The “but” is being used to replace a missing pronoun (the subject) in the subordinate clause and to make the clause negative.
Here’s the sentence with all the missing or substitute parts in place: “There is not a reading man who has not a draft of a new Community in his waistcoat pocket.”
As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “but” is being used here “with the pronominal subject or object of the subordinate clause unexpressed, so that but acts as a negative relative: that … not, who … not (e.g. Not a man but felt this terror, i.e. there was not a man who did not feel this terror, they all felt this terror). Now archaic and rare.”
The earliest OED example of the usage is from a medieval romance: “There be none othir there that knowe me, but wold be glad to wite me do wele” (“There are none there that know me who would not gladly expect me to act well”). From The Three Kings’ Sons, circa 1500. Frederick James Furnivall, who edited the manuscript in 1895 for the Early English Text Society, suggested that David Aubert, a French calligrapher for the Duke of Burgundy, may have been the author.
The most recent Oxford example for this use of “but” is from a 20th-century historical novel for children:
“There is scarce one among us but knows the fells as a man knows his own kale-garth” (“There is scarce one among us who doesn’t know the hills as a man knows his own cabbage garden”). From The Shield Ring, 1956, by Rosemary Sutcliff.