The few, the proud, the many

I picked up a new word today, etliche – “quite a lot” OR “quite a few.” I’d never noticed that in English when we mean “many” we sometimes say “a lot” and other times, paradoxically, say “a few,” if we qualify the latter of these with “quite.” The qualifier is very (or should I say “quite?”) important: compare “I had just a few” with “I had quite a few.” According to this page, the word “quite” can impact the word it modifies in two ways: “Quite is a degree adverb. It has two meanings depending on the word that follows it: ‘a little, moderately but not very’ and ‘very, totally or completely’.”

When “quite” precedes “a few” or “a bit” it is this second meaning of quite – “very, totally or completely” – that is in play. According to Duden online, the third meaning of etliche is a colloquial usage that amplifies or strengthens meaning: »beträchtlich« – “considerable(ly), substantial(ly) or sizeable(ly)” or »ziemlich viel« – “a good deal/a great deal/quite a lot/quite a bit.” They go on to say that it comes from Old High German word with a meaning equivalent to irgendein – “some, any” and in some contexts “any old” as in these two examples from Pons:

  • Welchen Wagen hätten Sie denn gern? —Ach, geben Sie mir irgendeinen,Hauptsache er fährt! – “Which car would you like, then? Just give me any old one, as long as it goes.”
  • Ich werde doch nicht irgendeinen einstellen. – “I not going to appoint just anyone.”

All this has me thinking is that you can learn quite a bit from any old word, if you just take the time to look at it! And no, you don’t need to send in the Marines.

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