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Phrase "all but"

Posted by R. Berg on June 19, 2001

In Reply to: Phrase "all but" posted by Sauerkraut on June 19, 2001

: I've seen this used in the sense of just shy of perfection - as in she was all but radiant in her new gown. I can't find any reference for the origin, however, nor the reason for the odd construction.

: Thanks for any help.

The Oxford English Dictionary lists this phrase under one sense of "all" (see below) and defines it as "Everything short of. Hence (adverbially) Almost, very nearly, well nigh." One of the OED's examples: "These were all but unknown to Greeks and Romans" . The earliest quotation given for "all but" is from 1598.

For the sense of "all" under which "all but" appears, the definition is "Everything." The OED's examples for this sense of "all" include "All is not lost," "That was all," and ". . . and all that."

"But" appears here in its meaning of "except," and so "She was all but radiant" is not very different from "All the puppies but one had black ears."