As a child I was interested in the word few. I was not interested in figuring out exactly what it meant; instead I was interested in understanding its potential. What could it mean? I enjoyed playing with modifiers such as “quite a few” which seems to mean the opposite of its intended meaning: the word few supposedly comes from the PIE pau- and from there the word paucity derives. It means a small but numerous number. It means “many, yet not many” to put it without delicacy. “Quite a few” seems to increase the “numerousness” of the number involved in few, but maybe it only emphasizes the importance that it is not only one or two…?

I remember thinking about this, and smiling. This word made me happy. When I came to college, however, I learned from my friends that the word few meant exactly “three.” I did try to argue that the word was meant to not be exact, but there was a certain force in the precise claim, and no-one listened to me. Interestingly, the word few is related to puerile. (the etymology is coming from etymonline.com) My arguments might have sounded immature to the ears of my friends. What use is a word if we don’t know exactly what it means? And if I don’t know exactly what it means, and this other person says he does, why should they listen to me?

My reaction was suppressed anger. By the time I was in college I was used to this sort of thing. I had a certain joy when people used a turn of phrase or said things that had a lot of possibility (especially when the speaker was a mathematician), and it seemed everyone else frowned on this joy. Maybe my feeling was stupid, or immature, or even evil, but I buried the determination to make the argument for a less determined definition of few, and many other things, in the face of everyone who thought they knew so much. It felt like such a small, trivial thing. But it was one of the last things I enjoyed about language at Earlham, where writing was paramount. Why couldn’t we have at least one vague word, a word about not knowing the exact number of things, but still being able to to communicate the information that it was more than two, yet not very many. Wasn’t that something we ran into all the time? Or were we supposed to count everything before we spoke? My reaction was far from laziness. I perceived this difference in my ideas, really in my temperament—what made me happy, as something I was going to struggle with my whole life, and correctly so.

Of course the word few does not at all mean “three.” Even though I did look it up at the time, (and the dictionary I consulted did say the word few meant exactly three, much to my dismay), I have been to several other sources years later. And written a book defending vague language, to a mathematical audience. The struggle continues… but at least I’ve got my finger on the problem now.