History of English: etymology of the word "any"

Who can discourse on the history of the word “any”? It’s obvious enough that it’s closely related to “a” and “an”, but how did its peculiar rules of usage come about? Or looking at it the other way, how did its peculiar usage result in its modern form? Why is it that you can only use the word ‘any’ in contexts of negation or interrogation, but
not declaratively? That is, if someone asks you if you caught any fish, you can’s say, “Yes, I did catch any fish”, but you can say, “No, I didn’t catch any fish.”

I know there’s some linguists out there, so please step up.

I don’t have a cite handy, but I think people do use “any” in a declarative sense in some regions of the country (US).


This is the OED’s etymology of “any” although some of the characters won’t display right.

I will leave the linguists to interpet this more

It’s first definition is

from Dictionary of Word Origins. Doesn’t answer your question, though.

Okay, in vaguely plain English: the words “any” and “an” [an egg] and “one” all have the same root word. They express a few important concepts, but the most important one we’re interested in is this: “there is [at least one of]something.”

So, interrogative or negative statements:

A: Did you catch any fish? [Is there at least one item of fish?]
B: No, I didn’t catch any. [Of fish there is not at least one.]
A: How about you, C?
C: Yes, I caught one!

There’s your declaratory “any”: it turned into “one” in C’s sentence. Why? [talking out of ass mode ON] The old “any” was a genitive construction, i.e. possessive: “I didn’t catch any of fish,” lit. Both “any” and “of fish” would be inflected into the genitive case in Old English.

If you said “I caught a fish!” you would put fish into the accusative [direct object] case, and “any” would no longer be grammatically appropriate. (You could say, “Of fish, I caught one,” but the word “one” would still be a direct object and thus in accusative case.)

Short answer: “any” and “one” are two different grammatical forms of the same word. Therefore, when two people say–“Did you catch any fish?” “Yes, I caught one!”–both people are basically using the same word, they just don’t realize it, because they forgot all their old English grammar.

[talking out of ass mode OFF]

Actually, humility aside, I think I got this right. :slight_smile: Ask a more accomplished linguist for a second opinionm, or ask me again to rephrase this more simply.

Could you be thinking of anymore, as in “Anymore, people just wear jeans and t-shirts when they fly”. That’s been mentioned elsewhere, [wildly speculating] but I think that those usages do contain an implicit notion of negation or cessation. The example I gave might really be interpreted as, “People used to dress up when they travelled, but anymore they just wear jeans and t-shirts when they fly.” Or, “Anymore, we don’t go to the movies much” might really be "We don’t go to movies much anymore.
[/wildly speculating]

If you have examples of any used in a positive declarative sentence, can you give a cite?

“Any” is an example of what’s called a negative polarity item. It’s only used in a few specific contexts - negative statements, interrogatives, and a few others. A couple other examples of negative polarity items are “give a damn” and “give a red cent” (um, that’s a rather old-fashioned one, so I’m not sure if you’d know it). This topic has been studied in linguistics a fair amount, but the only lingistics book I have at hand that discusses it is James McCawley’s Everything That Linguists Have Always Wanted to Know about Logic. All I can suggest is that you dig through a few books on English grammar written from a generative grammatical viewpoint. It’s complicated to describe the behavior of “any” and it’s not completely understood.