Few vs. Several
Reader Norma H. Flaskerud wonders about few and several.
She thinks “a few” refers to “maybe 2-3 items” while “several” refers to “maybe 3-6.” Her husband says “a few” is 4-7 items.
Few is the opposite of many. It derives from words having the meaning of “small” and “little.” It is related to Latin paucus (little, few) and even puer (child/boy). Old English feawe/fea derives from a Germanic root meaning “little.”
The number implied in the word few is “more than two,” Beyond that, trying to specify how many more is fruitless.
I expect the New Testament writer was anticipating more than 2-7 converts when writing:
Many are called, but few are chosen.
In 1940 Winston Churchill was referring to the pilots of the Royal Air Force when he wrote:
Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.
“The Few” became a name for this group of fliers: 2,353 British subjects and 574 volunteers from overseas.
Several comes from a word meaning “existing apart.” Before it came to mean “more than one” (about 1530), it was used with the meanings “separate, various, diverse, different.”
In legal use several preserves the meaning of “separate.” In the following example it is used to show that liability is enforceable separately against each party
the contractual liability of each company to insured is several and not joint —
In keeping with its original meaning, several may be used to separate one group from another:
A large crowd of soldiers gathered to protest the law. Several were women.
The word several, usually an adjective or pronoun, has also been used as a verb. A farmer or community would “several” a large expanse of land into smaller parcels.
It would seem that few and several can imply any number you want them to.
By the way, in checking the Churchill quotation, I re-read the speech in which it appears. It’s worth the time of any writer who is looking for models of beautifully-written English prose.
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