but (adv., prep.) [<--] Old English butan, buton "unless, except; without, outside,"
from West Germanic * be-utan, a compound of * be- "by" (see by)
+ * utana "out, outside; from without,"  from ut "out" (see out (adv.)).
Not used as a conjunction in Old English. As a noun from late 14c.

How did the two bolded West Germanic etymons (* be- + ut), combine to mean unless?

My guess: If an object is out by you, then the object is outside (of) you. To wit, you are without the object.
But how does this evolve to mean unless?

Please expose, explain, and bridge all hidden, missing semantic drifts and links. What is a right way of interpreting the etymology, to understand how the semantic jumps abstracted and strayed from the original literal meaning?

I don't quote OED, whose etymology stops at Old English and so doesn't retrograde enough.

  • The etymology which leads an OED entry may stop at the point where the word enters English or achives its distinct phonological character; but the following entries and citations are also etymological, providing a history of the word's use. Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 23:57
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    It is archaic now, but without used to be used as a conjunction synonymously with unless. For example without he is forced in The New Hoyle
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Jun 24, 2015 at 9:58
  • Of course we must not forget the Yorkshire song 'On Ilkla meear baht at' ('on Ilkley Moor without a hat')
    – Ned Ramm
    Commented Jun 24, 2015 at 23:33
  • @ColinFine That change I also question; how did without evolve to mean unless?
    – user5306
    Commented Jun 25, 2015 at 0:40
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    OE outside, without =>leaving out, barring, except => unless" (unless means except if)
    – Alex B.
    Commented Jun 25, 2015 at 1:34

1 Answer 1


I don't know enough about West Germanic (or Dutch) to trace the etymology of composition of be ("by") and ut/utan. However, here are a few observations on that topic.

  1. In OE, you have both utan ("outside") and innan ("inside"). Often found side by side (just as we do today): "inside and outside" => innan and utan (e.g. Genesis 1320).1
  2. Not only do you have butan as "outside => except/unless" but also binnan "within", formed on the same model (be+innan).
    So yes, the adjunction of be ("by", PDG bei) to indicate a positioning relative to self is confirmed. PDG still has innen and binnen.
    Dutch as well retains binnen and buiten.2
    If you think of it, it is also present in Present Day English: that's the with- in within and without.
    So far so good.
  3. Now about the semantic shift from "outside" to "unless" which ultimately led to the displacement of ac/ak (the "but" as a conjunction in Old English).
    Here are a few examples I picked from the corpus of Old English Poetry gradually evolving from from "outside" to "unless". All 'translations' are mine and are deliberately literal in order to facilitate the word to word correspondence.

    1. Let's start with a real meaning of "outside". This is from the Genesis (as you can recognise). v 1355.
      Feowertig daga fæhe ic wille
      on weras stælan and mid wægþreate
      æhta and agend eall acwellan
      þa beutan beo earce bordum
      þonne sweart racu stigan onginne.
      For forty days [my] vengence I will
      on mankind set, and with a deluge
      all possessions and possessors destroy
      that outside are [of the] Ark's boards
      when the black storm begins
      In this excerpt, we even have a more archaic form beutan. Clearly, the intended meaning here is "outside".

    2. Here is an example taken from The Meters of Boethius: (20).
      Hwæt, þu, fæder engla, eall þing birest e[ð]elice buton geswince.
      What, Thou, Father of Angels, all things bearest easily, never tired.
      Here we don't have "outside" but more like "immune to" => "except" (fatigue).

    3. Finally, here is a sample meaning of "except/unless". Pater Noster (ii)
      Ac hwar cym heo nu, buton þu, engla god,
      But where comes she [the soul] now, except/unless from Thee, God of Angels.
      As a bonus, we can see here in the same sentence, that "but" is 'ac'/'ak'.

  1. As well as ufan and utan "above and outside" for the rhyme.

  2. In Dutch, innen has survived as a verb: "to cash in"

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    In Dutch, buiten is an adjective and adverb meaning "outside" (literally). The adjective can also be used in the sense "aside of", "apart from", "except"; this is similar to how "but" / "but for" can be used as an adjective in English. Commented Jun 24, 2015 at 9:28
  • +1. Thanks. Would you please explain the reasoning behind the semantic shift from "outside" to "unless"? I read your entire helpful answer, but I still can't bridge this semantic jump.
    – user5306
    Commented Jul 6, 2015 at 13:51
  • @LePressentiment. I think you can get a first idea from the 3rd example. Try once with "outside" and once with "except" and then with "unless". "But where comes [the soul] now, outside from Thee, God of Angels" (meaning the soul can only come from within God). And then "But where comes [the soul] now, except from Thee, God of Angels" (same but not in spatial referential). And eventually "But where comes [the soul] now, unless from Thee, God of Angels". Of course it helps that the question is a "where from?". But that's precisely where I think the analogy originated.... Commented Jul 6, 2015 at 18:17
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    @LePressentiment... In my view the analogy is shifting from a spatial referential (in which outside has the information) to a probabilistic referential (more adapted to immaterial things which don't have a physical location) in which except or unless is the equivalent information. In my example, the soul is in both world: it seems to be located somewhere but actually it's immaterial. So both meanings are valid. hence the shift. A classical synaesthesia example: from concrete/visible to abstract/imaginary. Commented Jul 6, 2015 at 18:19

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