Printable Version
Pronunciation: -ri Hear it!

Part of Speech: Adjective, Numerical

Meaning: Not one, not a single.

Notes: Here is a word I listed years ago in the Glossary of Quaint Southernisms, but further research has turned up sentences from this year in such sources as Fortune magazine and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinental that suggest it may not belong to a regional dialect. It may be used as an adjective, or in an idiomatic way before a: nary one or nary a one. Either way its semantic function is (oddly) numerical.

In Play: Growing up in rural North Carolina, I heard assertions like this all the time: "When I asked for volunteers for clean-up, nary a soul stepped forward." We didn't go to 'movies', either: "When we reached the picture show, we discovered that we had nary cent among us." This sentence demonstrates the adjectival use of today's Good Word.

Word History: Today's Good Word is a reduction of a reduction: never a was reduced to ne'er a was reduced to nary. Never was yet another reduction. In Old English is was næfre, beginning as a compound of ne "no, not" + æfre "ever". Æfre began its life in Proto-Indo-European aiw- "(long) life, eternity", that emerged in German as echt "true, genuine". In English, it picked up the common suffix -er (Old English -re). It emerged in Latin as aevum "age", found in longaevitus "long life", the origin of English longevity. It also occurs in the Latin phrase medium aevum "the middle age", that underlies English medieval. (I should hear nary a complaint for thanking our old friend Lew Jury for suggesting today's truly Good Word.)

Dr. Goodword,

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