Thursday, August 23, 2012

Language of Confusion: Even-ing

Remember when I used to do funny subtitles? Man, did that get old fast.

Even is one of the words I use too much in my WIPs. It seems to slip in there as a pause, an intensifier, even a replacement for words like “and”. But there’s more than one even. There’s the one I like to use, the beginning to evening, and the one meaning level or equal.

Equal even comes from the Old English efen, with pretty much the same meanings we use for it today. Efen comes from the Proto-Germanic ebnaz, but no one’s sure which definition it started as. The adverb intensifier I like to use so much is more modern, from the sixteenth century, and arose as a way to emphasize identity.

But the other even (from evening; even is a mostly obsolete way to describe the end of the day) is quite different. That particular even comes from eve, which showed up in Old English as aefen and came from the Proto Germanic abando. These days we usually only use eve to describe the day before a holiday, like Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve since evening has become the dominant word for the time around sunset. That evening is from the Old English aefnung (yes, it’s from aefen), which comes from aefnian, a word that literally means “becoming evening”.

As for why we say evening for late in the day and not even, I haven’t been able to find a good answer. But it’s worth noting that equal evening usually has three syllables pronounced (eve-en-ing) while sunset evening is usually just two (eve-ning), whereas you can only say even one way. It’s possible that for once, people opted for something that was easier to distinguish in conversation. Of course, this means language evolution actually favored the lessconfusing option, so this rampant speculation is probably wrong ; ).

Tony Jebson’s page on The Origins of Old English


  1. In English? Choose a way to make it easier? Nah.

  2. I'm going to file this under the "Things I didn't think I'd learn today" folder. ;)

  3. My parents were of Dutch stock. When they were learning the language upon immigration, it always astounded them the oddities of the English language.

    Mind you, Dutch has an extra letter that looks like two letters: ij, which has a y sound. And they want to talk about odd?


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