When did “several” become “multiple?”

“I phoned him multiple times.”

“The building has multiple exits.”

Not so long ago, the “multiple” in these sentences would have read “several.”

“I phoned him several times.”

“The building has several exits.”

Somehow, while we were not really paying attention, “multiple” stole into our language and displaced “several” in a bloodless coup. 

The question is why.  I think we can blame police language, as in the “victim was shot multiple times.”

And I think we know what’s happening here.  Police spokespeople like to dress their remarks in extra dignity and they do this by reaching for their “best” vocabulary.  People become persons or perpetrators.  Guns become firearms.  And they are not fired; they are “discharged.”  The victim has multiple wounds.  It just sounds more official, more commanding, more large and in charge.  Don’t worry.  Your city is safe with us. 

In the case of “I phoned him multiple times,” the speaker signals a certain impatience.  As if there is an absolute limit to the number of times we should have to phone someone and that limit has been reached.  Damnit! 

Why should we want to sound more official, more in control?  Why should we want to sound more bureaucratic.  Especially when the rest of the culture is becoming both more informal and more playful.  Why, exactly, would we want to resemble police spokespeople.  I have no answers here.  Only vexing, cultural questions. 

32 thoughts on “When did “several” become “multiple?”

  1. MNPlanner

    I agree, but here’s why.
    Several could mean 3 to 4 or more.
    Multiple can make 2 sound like 8.
    Dramatic effect caused by exaggeration.
    It sounds like 1000 times better that way.

  2. Rick Liebling

    Between the increase in real life news coverage of murders, and the dozens of TV show police procedurals, people have been exposed to this terminology repeatedly.

  3. Virginia Postrel

    When did “a few” become several? What’s the difference between “multiple” and “many,” rather than several? Or does “multiple” mean more than several but fewer than many?

  4. Jason Laughlin

    The era of jargon to show authority makes me want to jump off a cliff. Multiple times. Don’t the police eventually have the actual number? Wouldn’t saying the victim was shot 5 times be better than multiple times? Leave the nonsense up to the “news” organizations.

    A list of multiple words that make me crazy: synergy, metrics, operationalize, “wheels up”, leading edge…

    Continue this list at your own peril, you could waste hours.

  5. andrew

    Perhaps it is related to the loss of deference in society.

    In the past the police would automatically be respected, but that is no longer the case, and so they are assuming a more legalistic vocabulary to shore up their eroding authority.

    In the past if teenagers were cheeky to the police the police would probably hit them (as they still do in France).

    Nowdays they are not allowed to hit anybody (not even criminals) and so they resort to language to assert their dignity.

  6. LaurieWatt

    Did you notice…
    one, a couple, several, many, lots and lots, tons, countless, innumerable — they all have a warmth, a common resonance.

    “multiple” is mathematic, edu-jargonic, an attempt to sound more educated than perhaps one really is. Truly sad. It creates a barrier — and as McCracken suggests, it’s police-speak, bureaucratic.

    Can’t we use language that warms us, unites us, makes connections between us all? We should try harder to communicate as people, not as individuals cast in roles.

  7. twitter.com/tomguarriello

    Why do we want to sound more official and in control especially when the rest of the culture is becoming both more informal and more playful? Because sometimes we want to be “them” and sometimes we want to be “us.” We’re flexible, so we can be whatever we want to be just by the flip of a word. Nice observation.

    1. Grant Post author

      excellent! “He was shot a shitload of times”. Someone take a sharpie to the teleprompter!

  8. marq104

    Sadly, I think the ‘folks’ using “multiple” these days are not aware
    that it’s NOT the best choice. I guess we#re becoming a society more
    and more educated by TV.
    I’ve heard multiple newscasters, even, making the same poor judgement choice.

    1. EvieN

      . . . And this surprises you? Newscasters are a big part of the problem. Their misuse of the English language gives the appearance of legitimacy to all sorts of grammatical and usage errors. When did we stop expecting newspeople to sound like they passed the fifth grade?

  9. TonyF

    The different between the word multiple and words like many or several is not just a question of quantity. “Multiple” implies that what is being described is composed of many elements or composite. I fear this is yet another example of the degradation of language by people desperate to sound clever, rather like the “gender” of “sex” substitution; the words didn’t mean the same thing but they do now and the subtlety has been lost for good.

    1. EvieN

      Thank you! You saved me the trouble of trying to explain it. The example I usually give people is “multiple birth.” But I think a lot of the problem is that we’ve taught kids to use an online Thesaurus to increase their vocabulary, but forgot to tell them that not all words listed are interchangeable.

  10. bryan

    I think that the objective behind the misuse of certain words like ‘multiple’ is rather more to create an impact. Either way, and unfortunately for those who wish to boost their status by using a higher register of vocabulary than they can handle, or for those who want to be noticed, the overuse and misuse of words such as ‘multiple’ weakens the impact of the word over time. When we first heard ‘multiple’ being used as a substitute for ‘several’, the slightly off syntax caught our attention. Today, the impact is gone and it now sounds commonplace. ‘Awesome’ is another of those words. Although questions such as, ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’ should not leave someone in awe, the reply is often, ‘Awesome’, which now is reduced to meaning nothing more than, ‘Yes please.’

    1. Grant Post author

      Bryan, thanks!, well said!, it’s as if words wear out. And this is in a sense true of dead metaphors where figures of speech disappear into a fixed phrase.

  11. bryan

    Just a little addendum: I believe that ‘multiple’ stems from the mathematical definition of a number that is produced by multiplying smaller numbers together; 2, 3, 4 and 6 are multiples of 12. So, ‘multiple’ should be used to convey the idea of a thing that is divided into many parts. For example, ‘He had multiple personalities’, that is one person with a personality that is composed of many parts; or many facets that combine to create the one person’s personality. ‘Several’ would not work here because ‘several’ relates to distinct and separate entities. ‘Several personalities’ would means many different people, each with their own personality.

  12. B.J. Kerekes

    Could someone, please, reduce the multi – multiple vs. several – many conflict to basic English grammar, e.g. adjectives, adverbs, proper coupling with nouns, and the like? I’m not an English major, but am trying to come up with a tight criteria for proper (old-fashioned) use, disregarding the sociological – evolutionary aspects.

    Thanks to all

    1. EvieN

      It’s not a question of grammar, since all the words being discussed are adjectives – they describe the noun you are talking about (in this case, by providing an indication of quantity).

      The difference is in the meaning. Here are some examples:
      A multi-vitamin is a single pill containing several vitamins (A,D,B12, etc.).
      A multiple birth is a single delivery of more than one child (twins, triplets, etc.). But a mother may give birth several times (having one child or more each time).
      A multiple-unit building (or “multi-unit” for short ) may have several apartments on each floor (the building is singular but made of many parts; but each apartment is distinct from the others, so they are “several” not “multiple”).
      I am one of several children (we are each unique) but I was raised in a multiple-child household (one home with more than one child in it).

      I hope this helps.

  13. Kevin

    “Myself” is another popular police term I’ve heard on the scanner multiple times, as in “Myself and 41 will cover that call.”

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