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January 9, 2013


An old friend of mine – in fact it is Mister David Alterman – asks the question: ‘How many is several?’ (The question reminds me of a scene in a French film, I wish I could remember its name, about someone in 18th century France who has some sort of plan to improve the sanitation conditions of the peasantry, and has to negotiate his way through the upper echelons of French society by demonstrating poise and wit and savoir faire, in order to gain the ear of Louis XIV – anyway, at some point in the film someone who’s just come back from England is asked if they have wit there, and he says no, but they have humour, and, as an example, says that when Lord Chesterfield was asked how many mistresses he had, he replied ‘How many is several?’ If anyone knows the name of that film I’d be grateful.)

Anyway. My answer, based solely on how I’ve heard the word used, is that several means certainly more than two, and probably more than three, and comprehends double figures, but not high up in double figures: just possibly in the teens, but not in the twenties. If someone used several to mean three I’d think they were overstating their case; whereas if they used several to mean twenty-six I’d think they were understating it. It means a small but significant number.

The word is related to the verb sever, and in Shakespeare is sometimes used to mean separate. Going by the etymology, the meaning would simply suggest more than one – something that has been cut up into more than one piece – but in its usage it means ‘more than you appreciated, or were prepared to acknowledge’. If someone says ‘This has happened on several occasions’ what they are doing is drawing attention to the fact that this is happening quite a lot. Similarly if someone says that a book has won several awards, or that there are several reasons in favour of a plan, they want to persuade you that the book or plan is probably a good one. It’s an indicator of the speaker’s attitude, rather than of exact quantity.

There’s a comparison here, already suggested by Dave, with few and a few. They might both refer to the same number, but the attitude is different. If I say I’ve made few friends in a new job or town, that means not enough; but if I say I’ve made a few friends, that means I’m happy with the number. Even if it’s the same number in both cases. Again, it’s a question of the speaker’s attitude. 

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