One for all, all for one

Alexandre Dumas gave his French musketeers the motto “Un pour tous, tous pour un,” which Spanish speakers can see means “Uno para todos, todos para uno.” Spanish uno is little changed from Latin unus, whose native English cognate is, unsurprisingly, one. As obvious as English one is per se, it also hides in plain sight in the word alone, whose second part is still pronounced the way one was before an initial w crept in and made the word sound the same as the unrelated won. English alone is a combined version of what started out as all one, where the all had the same intensifying force it does in a phrase like all by oneself. Ever since all one got shortened to alone, where the all was no longer recognizable, English speakers have felt free to add another emphatic all; the result is the familiar phrase all alone.

Another thing that happened after all one got reduced to alone was that for some speakers the weak first syllable disappeared altogether and generated a parallel form that took on a life of its own. The resulting lone has never been among the most common of English words, and I can attest to the fact that children in New York in the 1950s turned The Lone Ranger, whom they saw riding tall in his saddle, into The Long Ranger. Based on lone, English has the adjectives lonely and lonesome, and then the nouns loneliness and lonesomeness.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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