"all" = very; quite

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at RCI.RUTGERS.EDU
Tue Oct 18 17:54:44 UTC 2005

On Tue, 18 Oct 2005 10:23:25 -0700, Jonathan Lighter wrote:

>Now I've got it *all* figured out. The OED definition fails to
>distinguish between two distinguishable meanings of "all."
>Cf. these exx.:
>1. When we saw her, sire, she was all demoniac.
>2. When we saw her, dude, she was all demoniac.
>In (1), the meaning of demoniac is - presumably - literal: the lady in
>Caxton, cited by Ben and OED, is possessed by a demon. She is *utterly
>and wholly* possessed.  The demon controls her thoroughly.
>In (2), however, "demoniac" means - presumably (in our hyperbolic modern
>world) - "behaving as though demoniac; wild; frantic."  She is *extremely
>or very* wild or frantic. In fact, in current usage, she might be merely
>"rather" wild or frantic. Her emotions are the focus, not her entire
>capacities as a human being.
>Admittedly much of the discord between (1) and (2) stems from the
>contrast between formal "lady" and less formal; "dude," but I chose them
>to point up the distinct nuances of the strong and weak senses of
>"demoniac."  Just as the strong sense is unlikely to be intended in (2)
>because of its offhand character, the strong sense of "all" is equally
>If the weasel in my original example looks "all worried," he doesn't
>look *utterly or wholly" worried. he looks *very or extremely* worried.
>The adverbs "utterly" and "wholly" are not quite idiomatic here.  They
>refer to completeness rather than mere intensity.
>3. I'm all worn out.     = utterly; wholly
>4. I'm all excited.       = extremely; rather
>In (3), my capacity to continue is entirely used up.  In (4), my emotion
>has reached a higher than usual pitch.
>My suspicion is that early exx. of adv. "all" in such contexts
>overwhelmingly emphasize *utterness and completeness,* while more modern
>exx. are about equally likely to emphasize  *intensity.*
>All of this may be hairsplitting at its worst, and my argument may be
>*all* (utterly and wholly) wrong, but if so I won't get *all* (extremely
>or rather) upset about it, still less *all* [ambiguous here because of
>the vivid physical connotations of the following idiom] bent out of

It does seem like a difficult line to draw. Take for instance OED's 1880
cite from Browning, "All-agog to have me trespass," or (under "a-quiver")
the 1883 cite, "All aquiver with the fun." One could say in these cases
that the person is utterly or completely agog/aquiver, but how would one
be able to distinguish if the sense is rather that the person is
*intensely* agog/aquiver?

--Ben Zimmer

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