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shameless pleading






Save room for desserts.

Dear Word Detective:  In the sentence “The player had been on the field just eight minutes when he opened the scoring,” what word type would “just” fall under and why is it used? — Tom.

Good question. “Just” is a Swiss Army knife word. Consider how any times a day we use the word “just” in senses ranging from asking a caller to wait “just a minute” while we stop the dog from climbing into the refrigerator, to explaining that we mailed the check “just yesterday,” to pronouncing the porridge “just right.” And that’s not even counting the obnoxious ads exhorting us to “Just Do It.” Despite what you’ve heard about “the sleep of the just,” “just” never sleeps, and when it paces the room muttering to itself, we may beg, “Just leave us alone,” but it won’t. Is this making anyone else feel slightly queasy?

Never mind. Must have been the tuna omelet. Anyway, the “just” in your example of “just eight minutes” is an adverb, as is “just” in all of the uses I cited above except “sleep of the just,” in which it is an adjective (technically an “adjectival noun,” an adjective acting as a noun, as in “the poor” or “the meek”). In your example phrase “just eight minutes,” the word “just” is being used to mean “only” or “no more than.”

The adverbial “just” first appeared in English right around 1400, derived from the adjective “just,” which had entered English earlier in the 14th century. The root of “just” was the Latin “jus,” meaning “right or law” (which also underlies “justice” and is related to “jury,” “injury,” et al.). This Latin “jus” seems to have originated in religious cults (possibly originally meaning “sacred formulas”) and was separate from the mainstream Latin “lex,” meaning “law.” So it’s not surprising that the early uses of “just” as an adjective in English centered on moral and religious rightness and fidelity. The religious overtones had largely dropped away by Shakespeare’s day (“He was my Friend, faithful, and just to me,” Julius Caesar, 1616), and “just” as an adjective ever since has meant “true, fair, proper, reasonable and right” in various secular  senses.

“Just” as an adverb followed this semantic trail, initially meaning “precisely, properly, appropriately,” as we use it today in such phrases as “just as” (exactly as), “just so” (in precisely this manner or fashion). Somewhat more loosely, we use “just as” to denote the extent or degree of something (“I’ll be your friend just as long as you lend me money”). “Just” can also indicate likeness or being appropriate (“You seem to be just the thing for him,” 1809), or denote a specific amount or quantity (“It is just a fortnight since Mr. Gladstone embarked,” 1883). “Just” is also used to introduce an implied question (“One wonders just how biased a view we develop of the human ecology of tropical Africa,” 1974) or statement of fact (“Just how many bushels a man will place on an acre depends upon both his means and his judgment,” 1884). In both those sentences “just” could be replaced by “exactly” or “precisely.”

One of the uses of “just” that seems to have drifted furthest from its original meaning is “just” used in matters of time to mean “almost at that point; not long before or after” (“The apostle had just been speaking of Jesus Christ,” 1758) or “in a moment, very soon” (“Presently the Captain reply’d, Tell his Excellency, I am just a coming,” 1719). It can also mean “barely,” “merely” or “no more than” (“Everard had but just time to bid Wildrake hold the horses,” 1826).  “Just” is also used as an emphatic modifier meaning “absolutely,” as in “Bob’s arrest for mopery was just the final straw.” In the advertising slogan “Just Do It,” the “just” is, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) notes in its exhaustive entry on the word, being “used to extenuate the action expressed by a verb, and so to represent it as a small thing” (“Mother! Do just get in with me for a few minutes till the train starts,” 1898) or, in this case, simply a matter of initiative and discipline.

Many of these sub-senses of “just” overlap, obviously, and trying to finely parse the differences between the senses is asking for a fierce headache. But to say a player has been on the field for “just eight minutes” clearly invokes sense Five of the OED definition: “No more than; only, merely; barely.” That’s still in the ballpark with the original sense of “just” meaning “exactly,” but in this sense, with its overtones of “Gimme a break, it’s only been eight minutes,” it’s become an adverb with attitude.

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