What Makes Someone ‘A Lot’?

On a surplus of selfhood in relation to acceptable social standards of interaction

The words "a lot" in pink and yellow
Gabriela Pesqueira / The Atlantic

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What are people saying about me when they preface my arrival by telling the rest of the people at the party that I’m “a lot”? A lot of what? A lot of fun? A lot of stress? A lot of people’s worst nightmare? At this point, many of us know what a person means when they say someone is “a lot.” But on a grammatical level, using an adjective of unspecified measurement should make absolutely no sense. Imagine if I called someone “a few” or “a bunch” or “some.” Your mind would grasp for a phrase to fill out the meaning of the sentence by specifying the contents of the quantity in question. But not for a lot. You don’t need to be a lot of anything. You can just be a lot.

Although “a lot” isn’t commonly considered a unit of measurement, it was originally associated with portions. The Old English hlot meant “an object used to determine someone’s share.” In the Bible, “casting lots”' means deciding someone’s fate through the classic process of putting marked items in a bowl-shaped container, shaking it up, and choosing one at random. (The fancy name for this is cleromancy, and it’s been used to fairly choose outcomes as varied as who’s on which charades team and the division of lands to the tribes of Israel.)

The common use of a lot, though, comes to us through the auction houses of the 17th and 18th centuries. At an auction, a “lot” came to mean a grouping of multiple items bid on collectively. From there, it took on the metaphorical meaning of “a large assortment” or “a great amount.” But up until recently, in this context, the phrase needed a complementary genitive clause of composition to tell us what exactly comprised this lot. But not anymore. When used to describe a person’s character, the lot’s contents become implicit.

Indeed, there are other words of quantity that have followed suit—eliminating the specifics of what’s being quantified in order to indicate degree of personality. By the same measure, you can call someone “too much” or “extra” and we implicitly know what’s being measured. It’s a surplus of selfhood in relation to acceptable social standards of interaction. Someone who is “a lot” boils over with their own personality. They may be overwhelming and hard to handle in a social situation. They are a lot of themselves. Which I tried to render with as little judgment as possible in our Thursday clue: “Intense, personality-wise.”

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