Printable Version
Pronunciation: if Hear it!

Part of Speech: Conjunction, noun

Meaning: 1. Conditional (unlikely) situation, should: If I were you, I'd apologize. 2. Granting that, accepting that: If she blabs, we're all in deep trouble. 3. On the condition that: I will go only if you go. 4. Even though, though: an attractive if naive girl. 5. In exclamations, it indicates a better circumstance: If only I had never met Phil Anders! 6. Whether, introducing a subordinate question: Ask if she does windows.

Notes: This is perhaps the smallest word carrying such a large amount of semantic freight. I don't know why it hasn't collapsed under the weight of it all. If may also be used as a noun, as in phrases like "no ifs or ands", and "no ifs, ands, or buts". It has also been used as a verb, as in "no iffing about". The adjective iffy "doubtful" also comes from this word, as well as the noun from it, iffiness.

In Play: Examples of each meaning of today's Good Word were presented alongside in the definition; however, a few more won't harm us: "If I were you, I wouldn't smoke when fueling my car." If is present in many English idioms, like this one: "If ands and buts were candy and nuts, every day would be Christmas."

Word History: Today's tiny Good Word goes back to a case form of Old High German iba "condition, stipulation, doubt". In Old English gif we see that an initial consonant might have been involved, though it isn't confirmed in Old Saxon ef. In Old Norse, if was a noun meaning "doubt, hesitation", whence the verb ifa or efa "to doubt". In Modern Swedish it is also a noun, jv "exception, challenge". Speculation has it that the English conjunction originated as a case form of a noun (iba) which originally meant "on condition (of), on the stipulation (that)". (If Sally Dunkerly, 15, from somewhere in Australia had not seen the interesting aspects of this word and recommended it, you would not be reading it as today's Good Word. Read her lovely letter in the Language Blog.)

Dr. Goodword,

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