What does "even" even mean?

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From a recent Sore Thumbs:

"How the heck will Kinect swimming even work?" is a nice example of a use of even that I think is genuinely new. At  least, certain expressions like "what does that even mean?" and "how does that even work?"  have recently become common, and I can't find clear examples of them that are more than about 15 years old. But perhaps we should see this as rolling the clock back to the 16th century, and taking things up where they left off when even began a five-century detour as a scalar particle.

According to the OED, even started out meaning "flat, level, uniform", passed through related notions like "equal, coincident, balanced, exact", and eventually came to be used "in weakened senses as an intensive or emphatic particle", which might be "Prefixed to a subject, object, or predicate, or to the expression of a qualifying circumstance, to emphasize its identity". Thus

a1616 Shakespeare Tempest (1623) iii. i. 14 These sweet thoughts, doe euen refresh my labours.

This version of even was used hundreds of times in the King James bible, for instance

Gen. 34:29 And all their wealth, and all their little ones, and their wiues tooke they captiue, and spoiled euen all that was in the house.

We have no record of anyone complaining about the striking loss of literal precision.

At some point in the 16th century, even developed the OED's sense 9,

Intimating that the sentence expresses an extreme case of a more general proposition implied (= French même). Prefixed (in later use often parenthetically postfixed) to the particular word, phrase, or clause, on which the extreme character of the statement or supposition depends.

This use, now the prevailing one in Eng., is foreign to the other Germanic langs. It is rare in purely dialectal speech, and (though a natural development of 8) seems not to have arisen before the 16th c. Cotgrave 1611 does not give even among the equivalents of French mesme.

This is the "scalar particle" sense whose modern analysis was initiated by Larry Horn's 1969 paper "A Presuppositional Analysis of 'Only' and 'Even'", CLS 5, and fully developed by Lauri Karttunen and Stan Peters, "Conventional Implicature", 1979.  K&P consider the sentence

Even Bill likes Mary.

and argue that besides asserting that Bill like Mary, this sentence presupposes that

(a) Other people besides Bill like Mary; and
(b) Of the people under consideration, Bill is the least likely to like Mary.

This points in the direction of a formal reconstruction of the idea in the OED's observation that this sense of even is "intimating that the sentence expresses an extreme case of a more general proposition".

(We'll pass over the formal part, and also ignore for now the fact that even associates with focus, so that e.g. "Kim even taught Leslie Tibetan" means something different from "Kim even taught Leslie Tibetan", where boldface denotes intonational focus.)

This same scalar-particle analysis of even works with verbs, as in the title of Slavenka Drakulic's book How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed. Thus this presupposes that there are other things besides laughing that we did (or might have done), and that of the activities under consideration, laughing is the least likely (or at least is well out towards the edge of likelihood).

But there's a class of (I think) recent uses of even that resist this sort of treatment as "intimating … an extreme case of a more general proposition", and instead seem to be purely emphatic.  I associate this with the speech of young women, as in this passage from Rhoda Hayter, The Witchy Worries of Abbie Adams (2010):

How'd you like to be innocently walking in the door one day with an armload of books for your kitten and hear this in your head: "Father's going to owe me a lot of dimes soon"? How random and creepy is that ???? What does something like that even mean???

But like many such stereotyped associations, this one seems to be false.

Randall Munroe, the author of xkcd, is relatively young but not female:

And judging from his picture as well as his C.V., Owen J. Flanagan, the James B. Duke Professor of Philosophy at Duke University, is neither young nor female, but p. 265 of his 2002 book The problem of the soul: two visions of mind and how to reconcile them contains this passage:

And we might have the urge to say it is objectively true that friendship, love, kindness, and compassion are great goods. But what does this even mean?

Ian Ayres, the William K. Townsend Professor of Law at Yale University, is similarly middle-aged and male, but he started his Freakonomics post "Selling my addiction", 9/29/2010, with this:

An unusual auction began late yesterday on eBay. I’m selling my “right to regain weight.” Why would anyone in their right mind be willing to pay me cash to buy this right? What does this even mean?

Indeed, one of the earliest examples that I've been able to find of phrases like "what does that even mean?" is in a quote from a Chicago Bears linebacker (Marc Morehouse, "Bears' defense blitzed again", Dubuque Telegraph-Herald 11/13/1995):

Chicago linebacker Vinson Smith, who blitzed to collect two of the Bears' three sacks Sunday, questioned Favre's questionable status going into the game.

"He was not hurting," he said. "No way. You can't tell me that."

The Packers said Favre missed the entire week of practice. And Favre admitted Sunday that he didn't even go to practice.

"I'm hoping to get out of it again next week," said Favre, who finished 25 of 33 for 336 yars and no interceptions.

"Now he knows I know his ankle is getting better," Packers coach Mike Holmgren said. "So, we'll have to negotiate."

Smith as still unconvinced.

"That was bullcrap from the beginning," he said. "What's that even mean? He must have been practicing at night" when nobody was paying attention.

The earliest example that I've been able to find is Carl Herko, "It's time for some serious fun", Buffalo News 11/25/1993:

The Top 10 adult toys? Now, that is a holiday gift category full of (heh-heh) possibilities! And (nudge-nudge) peril.

What does that even mean, adult toys? It's not an easy term to define, like kids' toys or pornography, where you know it when you see it.

No sirree, an adult toy is something altogether different. To some adults, it might be nothing more than a parlor game big people play; Trivial Pursuit, perhaps.

The specific phrase "what does that even mean?" has become fairly common in the news media and in books, but most of the hits are from the past decade.  Since it's used by older people like Ayres and Flanagan, you might think that it was around 50 years ago — Flanagan was born in 1949 — but I don't remember this expression from my youth, and I can't find any convincing examples before the 1993 quote given above. No doubt there are some out there, but it does seem that the spread of this variety of even is relatively recent.

Cecania's question, "How the heck will Kinect Swimming even work?", shows that this use of even is not limited to inquiries about what things mean. Some other web examples that seem similar to me:

How do you even spell that?
How do you even pronounce Ophiuchus?
Why are you even bothering me?
If she has children then it will be because she wanted to and I don't see how that's even entertaining to anyone.
I have no idea who that even is.
but has anyone even considered how that even happened?
I can't even stand this thing anymore.

As far as I can tell, this purely-emphatic version of even is a polarity item, in that it only works in a range of contexts including negation and questions.

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99 Comments »

  1. William Ockham said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 11:38 am

    My perception when my kids started saying this (10 or 15 years ago) was that this phraseology was slang from my childhood returning (I'm 50, so maybe 40 years ago). But I don't have a distinct memory of anyone saying it, so I could be wrong.

  2. Mark F. said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 11:43 am

    Some of these aren't purely emphatic. If you recast the question as an assertion, it often fits well into the OED's characterization. "What does that even mean?" is a rhetorical question more or less equivalent to "Not only is that false, it doesn't even mean anything." Here I think lacking meaning is an extreme case of the more general property of not being a true claim.

    In some of the other examples I definitely see it taking on the air of simple emphasis.

    In the 90's, MTV did a poll (maybe it was a phone-in poll) where the question was "Bell-bottom jeans– coming back?" and the options were "Totally!" and "Not even." This was before 1993.

    [(myl) Good point about "not even" as an emphatic form of "no", which strikes me as having been around for a while, though I haven't checked.

    However, I think that "not even" as a form of "no" is short for "not even close" or "not even a little bit" or other things like that, and thus is not directly relevant to this discussion.]

  3. Ben Hemmens said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 11:50 am

    I remember a similar even in the laws of thermodynamics which I must have heard in 1984 or '85

    1. You can't win, you can only break even.
    2. You can't even get even.

    I've forgotten the third (Wikiquote has it as "you can't get out of the game").

    It has never struck me as unusual.

    [(myl) That's because it *isn't* unusual, it's a completely routine example of the "scalar particle" version of even that's been standard in English for 500 years.]

  4. J. W. Brewer said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 12:02 pm

    See also http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/000024.html (2003 post titled "Can Derrida Be 'Even Wrong'?"). I was going to quibble with the description of Prof. Ayres as "middle-aged" and one of the set of "older people," because, come on, he's only six years older than me. What are you trying to say?

    [(myl) Pauli's remark about something being "not even wrong" is a joke that relies on the standard scalar-particle meaning of even. "This is not even wrong" means that this has not reached even the (relatively accessible) state of being wrong, but instead is incoherent and thus not well enough structured to be evaluated for truth. As a point of comparison, suppose that X asks "is the meat overdone?" and Y responds "no, it's not even warm". This is a canonical example of the scalar-particle even applied to a negated adjective.

    The thing about the innovative uses of "even" is that there doesn't seem to be any associated scale.]

  5. Josh Millard said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 12:04 pm

    I can report as someone in his early 30s that I have no sense of this kind of purely emphatic "even" being anything other than something that's Been Around Forever, which reconciles well enough against the early-nineties citations I suppose. It certainly feels like a comfortable rhetorical twitch, not something I'd have thought twice about if it wasn't brought up explicitly as it is here.

    (The thing that immediately comes to mind for me on the negative side is the Pauli line about something being "not even wrong". But as Mark F. and Mark L. have noted, maybe that's a bit different, and it's also translated from German so, heck, I don't know.)

  6. Heather said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 12:20 pm

    Doing some searching, I found a script for a 1989 Simpsons episode where Bart becomes a jazz genius.

    http://movie.subtitlr.com/subtitle/show/152332#line191
    "Bart, does that even mean anything?"

    [(myl) Nice find! I suspect that traces will turn up back another decade or so, with the period of rapid growth being the late 1990s. But Paul Schofield's comment below asserts that the passage you've cited is actually from 2006/7, so this one needs further checking. ]

  7. Bruce Rusk said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 12:21 pm

    I found 1985 and 1986 examples of "what that even means" from Usenet and, from 1984, "what it's even all about." From 1989, "does that even make sense?"

    [Thanks! I should have thought of checking usenet.]

  8. Chandra said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 12:23 pm

    Also in my 30s, and also find this phrasing completely unremarkable and commonplace. I don't think it's purely emphatic, however. There is quite a difference between:

    "Wow, how do you do that?!" (Emphatic, sincerely wishing to know how the thing is done)

    and

    "How do you even do that?" (Heavily dosed with skepticism)

    [(myl) Interesting. Many of the other examples that I've seen also have this sort of edge to them, including Cecania's remark in the cartoon panel at the start of the post. But can you say more about what this is? Is it just a somewhat hostile or negative attitude towards the person you're talking to (or talking about)?]

  9. Paul Schofield said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 12:35 pm

    Heather, that episode is from series 18, from 2006/7. There is a clue in the Titanic reference to 1997.

  10. jfruh said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 12:38 pm

    I do think that the "even mean" construction can be seen as an extension or evolution of even's intensification function. The implication, to me, is that you're sort of saying "I can't grapple with what you're saying because, at a fundamental level, I don't even know what it means." Does that make sense? It's like you're drilling down through all the ways you can process a statement or proposition and getting to the deepest extension — its meaning.

    "Not even wrong" may be a somewhat different phenomenon, not least because as a phrase it was deliberately coined (about string theory) to be striking and kind of cute. It's not immediately obvious what meaning it's trying to convey, although it's not particularly hard to explain; the whole point of it is to bring people up short so you can explain to them what it means, not to actually convey meaning in and of itself, if that makes sense.

    [(myl) As others have pointed out, the "not even wrong" remark is due to a story told by Rudolf Peierls about Wolfgang Pauli, who was making a joke about the work of a (then-) young physicist whose name has mercifully been forgotten; and as I've pointed it, this joke is (as you suggest) a standard (if humorous) instance of the scalar-particle version of even.]

  11. a George said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 12:38 pm

    In German there is a word used in a similar construction: "überhaupt" and corresponding terms exist in the Scandinavian languages. "was bedeutet es überhaupt, Bart?", "Bart, hat es überhaupt eine Bedeutung?" [disregard the beard, the term is in general use]

  12. Jon Weinberg said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 12:42 pm

    1981, Hans Oberdiek (Professor of Philosophy, Swarthmore College) writing in the Univ. of Pennsylvania Law Review: "What does this even mean? Is Watson saying that there is no inevitable connection between what people feel and declare to be law and justice, or between law and justice per se?"

  13. jtradke said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 12:43 pm

    I remember using "even" this way a lot as a kid in the early 90's, but it sort of fell out of my lexicon until hearing it again in the movie Napoleon Dynamite:

    "Napoleon, like anyone can even know that."
    "What the heck are you even talking about?!"
    "…she hasn't even sent me a full body shot yet."

    Part of the appeal of that movie, for me, was the nostalgia it invoked, including particular childhood obsessions (Trapper Keepers, action figures, cool bikes, etc.) and vernacular.

  14. Eveningsun said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 12:46 pm

    I remember pretty much everyone using "even" this way when I was a kid in the 60s and 70s. Also this kind of usage:

    My Mom: Aren't you cold without a sweater?
    Me: Not even!

    [(myl) "Not even" as an emphatic form of "no" is much older, and seems to be an entirely different phenomenon, short for "not even a little" or "not even remotely".

    If "pretty much everyone" used even this way back in the 60s and 70s, we ought to be able to find plenty of evidence of it. It's all over the place now -- in news media, in movie scripts, in novels, in blog posts -- but it's suspiciously absent in news media, movies, novels, letters etc from the 60s and 70s. So (pending evidence) I suspect that you're thinking of other uses of even.]

  15. Boris said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 12:53 pm

    Via Google Books:
    McCall's, Volume 103 (1976): What does that say about *me*? What does that even mean? She's trying to *make* it mean something.

  16. D Sky Onosson said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 12:55 pm

    I'm not to sure how significant a role this plays generally in this use of "even", but it does serve nicely to break up the stress contour between the two stressed elements in the first example, "swimming" and "work".

  17. Tanja said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 12:59 pm

    Here's another 30-something who feels like it's Been Around Forever. Not only that, but we have a similar expression in my native tongue, Finnish, using the word "edes".

    We have two words for "even" in OED's sense 9, "jopa" (used in positive contexts) and "edes" (used in negative contexts). Thus, "Even Bill likes Mary" would be translated as "Jopa Bill pitää Marysta", while "Not even Bill likes Mary" would be "Ei edes Bill pidä Marysta". And it's the latter word that's used in expressions like "What does that even mean?": "Mitä tuo edes tarkoittaa?" (or, more colloquially, "Mitä toi ees tarkottaa?"). There's still a clear connection with "edes" and negativity in this expression, the implication being that it doesn't mean anything. The expression may be calqued on English, but I still think it's interesting that "edes" was the word picked for it.

  18. Brett said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 1:04 pm

    @jfruh: "Not even wrong" was not coined in relation to string theory, although Peter Woit may have popularized the usage. It's a translation of something Wolfgang Pauli said decades ago, and the phrase and its meaning have been well known among physicists for at least twenty years, perhaps much longer.

    More generally, I always figured that the use of "even" being discussed here (especially "What does that even mean?") arose from the older usage "not even," as in, "That's not even a word."

  19. David J. Littleboy said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 1:18 pm

    Hmm. As a late-50s Bostonian, both "does that even work" and "what does that even mean" strike me as screamingly unremarkable normal English usage.

  20. Stuart said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 1:22 pm

    My 17-year-old daughter uses this as the ultimate intensifier:
    "You don't even know how this is."
    I guess I'm too old but I don't even know what that means.

  21. Stuart said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 1:23 pm

    Oops. There should be an adjective between "how" and "this" in the comment above.

  22. Jeremy said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 1:28 pm

    No analysis here from me, just some extra data points:
    Searching Google Scholar for "what does * even *", from 1900 to 1970 returned hits from in 1950 and 1963:

    1. CS Chihara – The Philosophical Review, 1963 – JSTOR
    "… Indeed, what does it even mean to say that we are or are not free…"

    2. J Hospers – Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 1950 – JSTOR
    "… What does one even mean by referring to "his meaning?"

    So I asked it for pre-1950 references, and it returned one from 1908:
    TM Osborne – American Economic Association Quarterly, 1908 – JSTOR
    "For when the city legislature grants a franchise in perpetuity it gives away what does not belong to it to give, what does not even belong to the public -the existing generation of citizens,-but which belongs to the whole community of to-day, of to-morrow, and so on to the end of time…"

  23. Hyman Rosen said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 1:32 pm

    I would take "How does even ?" to mean that the other speaker has said or implied that is good for some purpose and the response is that of all the things could be good for, is the least, and the responder is not sure that rises to level. So in the Kinect swimming case, the responder is questioning whether one can practice swimming using the Kinect at all, let alone use it to dispel psychological traumas. In the xkcd case, the question is whether the two-finger / "commented" action has any meaning, let alone whether it is a suitable response.

    A scientific hypothesis is assumed to have a certain amount of structure, such that one can reason about and test its claims. Saying that "it's not even wrong" means that it's so poorly formulated and described that this basic criterion is lacking.

  24. John Cowan said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 1:34 pm

    I'm almost 53 now, and the emphatic use of even seems very natural to me. I too remember the recasting of the laws of thermodynamics, with break even for get even (Ben Hemmen, was that an error on your part?), and I would have heard that in the early 70s when I was taking high school physics or shortly thereafter. A version from TV Tropes is, I think, the best yet: "You can't win; you can only break even / You can only break even at absolute zero / You can't reach absolute zero."

    Anyway, here's my best shot at an antedating: "But the serious proposal of marriage: is that even possible, not to speak of probability?", from John Cann Bailey's 1931 book Introductions to Jane Austen. It's not directly visible on Google Books, but searching GB for "is that even possible" and setting the search limits to 1920-1940 reveals this sentence. But perhaps this is not mere emphasis after all: I'm far from sure of my grasp of the distinction.

    [(myl) The example that you cite is a canonical example of the hoary old "scalar particle" usage -- the appended "not to speak of probability" even gives us explicitly another point on the scale.]

  25. Hyman Rosen said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 1:34 pm

    Sigh. Words in angle brackets have disappeared. Let me try again:
    I would take "How does 'this' even 'that'?" to mean that the other speaker has said or implied that 'this' is good for some purpose and the response is that of all the things 'this' could be good for, 'that' is the least, and the responder is not sure that 'this' rises to 'that' level. So in the Kinect swimming case, the responder is questioning whether one can practice swimming using the Kinect at all, let alone use it to dispel psychological traumas. In the xkcd case, the question is whether the two-finger / "commented" action has any meaning, let alone whether it is a suitable response.

    A scientific hypothesis is assumed to have a certain amount of structure, such that one can reason about and test its claims. Saying that "it's not even wrong" means that it's so poorly formulated and described that this basic criterion is lacking.

  26. Michael Israel said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 1:35 pm

    I don't really see how the meaning of "even" is any different in these "purely emphatic" uses. What "even" does as a scalar focus particle is add emphasis, and the way it does that is by presenting an expressed proposition (i.e. what is said) as somehow stronger (or, as the OED has it, more extreme) than some salient set of plausible alternatives. In the "(what does it) even mean" and "(how does it) even work" questions Mark cites, the particle takes the (denotation of) the verb as its focus, and presupposes that whatever "it" is, its "meaning" something or "working" at all would be less remarkable (or more likely) than its being, say, truly significant or working really well. So if people we're saying stuff like this back in 1969, think Horn's analysis would still have held up pretty well.

    I also think Mark is right that these collocations ("even mean" and "even work") are NPIs. There are, in fact, a lot of negative polarity items in English which similarly evoke scales of meaning, significance or purposefulness. At least I've elsewhere analyzed those below along these lines:

    matter (e.g. it matters, no matter), make a difference, mean a thing;
    mean/be worth/amount to {jack/shit/(a hill of) beans, etc};
    cut any ice, add up, count, signify, register, bear comment,
    be (any/*some)… good / point / use (Ving); be of (any/*some) avail

  27. Carl Hoyt said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 1:36 pm

    It brings to mind the cartoon character Snagglepuss, of whom wikipedia says:

    Snagglepuss has three signature catchphrases. Before dashing off (whether to escape or for some other reason), he exclaims "Exit, stage left!" (or stage right, and sometimes even up or down), a phrase used in theatrical stage directions.

    Snagglepuss typically appends the adverbial focus particle "… even" to seemingly every phrase.

    His most famous is his perpetual exclamation, "Heavens to Murgatroyd!" – a line first uttered by Bert Lahr in the 1944 film Meet the People.[1]

    As I recall, his voice is also modeled on Lahr's.

  28. Joel Shaver said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 1:43 pm

    Well, a Google Books search for "does * even mean" turns up quite a few 19th-century "does not even mean"s:

    http://www.google.com/search?q=%22does+*+even+mean%22&hl=en&tbo=1&tbs=bks:1,cdr:1,cd_min:1800,cd_max:1899&source=lnt&sa=X&ei=eIlRTZabBJC4sAOm4ZCWBw&ved=0CBUQpwUoAw

    For a while, my sister jokingly greeted me with the question "How are you, even?" – not quite sure where she got it, but we both felt like it was representative of some sort of American dialect (not ours!).

    That reminds me of questions like "how are you even doing that?" – seems like a similar role for "even".

  29. John Cowan said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 1:47 pm

    Sorry, for "Ben Hemmen" read "Ben Hemmens".

  30. Andrew Pendleton said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 2:03 pm

    It doesn't strike me as being an intensifier, exactly; the addition of "even" changes the meaning, as others have suggested, and, in particular, expresses a sense of doubt, skepticism, or maybe surprise. "What does that mean?" is a genuine question about meaning, whereas "what does that even mean?" expresses skepticism that "that" even means anything. Likewise, the subtext of "how does that even work?" has the added subtext that the thing doesn't, or shouldn't, work, something you don't get at all from "how does that work?".

  31. Jonathan said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 2:06 pm

    At least some of the examples strike me as closely related to, if not the same as, the scalar meaning. 'How do you even pronounce that?', for example, corresponds to 'I can't even pronounce that.', implying (a) There are other things one would want to do with it; and
    (b) Of the things under consideration, pronouncing would be expected of someone capable of the others.

    It can be a question of entailment. 'Not even X' implies 'Not only not Y, but not X which is entailed by Y'. Thus, 'What does that even mean?' implies 'Not only do I not know what the consequences of that would be if true, I don't know what it would mean for that to be true.'

  32. Michael Straight said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 2:09 pm

    I think in every case you've pointed to for this "new" use of "even," there is a question and an associated implied question or statement, and the "even" makes implicit reference to that question/statement while asserting that the stated question is more fundamental than the implied one.

    Bob: "Should I eat ten hamburgers today?"

    Sally: "How is that even possible?"

    implies "No, you shouldn't do that, but more to the point, I don't think it's even possible to do that."

    Or in your example, "How the heck will Kinnect swimming even work?" implies, "Not only am I skeptical about your plan to virtually swim your traumas away, I'm skeptical about the whole idea of swimming on the Kinnect."

    Or Dr. Flannagan's question "And we might have the urge to say it is objectively true that friendship, love, kindness, and compassion are great goods. But what does this even mean?" implies something like "Before we answer the question of whether or not friendship is objectively a great good, we have to consider what such a statement would mean."

  33. Russell said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 2:13 pm

    Following up on the issue of polarity

    The reporter even interviewed the coach's brother's barber.
    This indicates unlikelihood/surprisingness of interviewing that person, w/ implication that all others more likely to be interviewed were.

    The reporter didn't even interview the coach himself.
    Negation reverses the scale(s) involved, so this indicates that the most likely person to be interviewed was not.

    Who did the reporter even interview?
    The asker suspects that the answer to this question (if there were to be one) would be like the "negated even" sentence, i.e., no one likely to be interviewed.

    (source)

    And polarity + let alone

    I want to know how he even saw my personal diary, *let alone my school notes/my ultra-secret take-over-the-world plans.

    I want to know how he even saw my personal diary, let alone scanned it and posted it online).

  34. Michael Straight said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 2:14 pm

    Or maybe it would be more accurate to paraphrase Sally in my example as meaning something like "never mind whether I think you should do it, I don't think it's even possible."

    Because I think the function of the "even" is not so much to imply an answer to the unstated question as it is to dismiss the unstated question as pointless or unanswerable because of this more fundamental, stated question.

  35. Colin Reid said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 2:16 pm

    Re German, I wonder what the overlap in meaning/usage is between 'even' and its German cognate 'eben', which has several uses of its own. Perhaps it was greater in Shakespeare's day, judging by those quotes.

    I gather the original 'it's not even wrong!' was 'es ist nicht einmal falsch!' In fact 'sogar' and 'nicht einmal' can be used quite generally to state extreme cases of some implied general proposition, just like '(not) even' in English. So the construction doesn't really set English apart among Germanic languages.

  36. Brian C. said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 2:51 pm

    I think the frequent and strange use of the Russian word for "even" in Gogol's Dead Souls is something to look into.

  37. Chandra said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 2:59 pm

    @myl – No, I wouldn't say it's a hostile or negative attitude towards the person you're talking to, but a doubtful or incredulous attitude towards the proposition the person is making.

    I think the comments above of Michaels Israel and Straight have explained it better.

  38. stormboy said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 3:00 pm

    Is there a US/UK divide here? I'm from London (England) and while I'm very familiar with this usage I have a feeling (and just a feeling) that it's because I've heard it frequently on American TV shows rather than in real life in the UK.

  39. Peter said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 3:13 pm

    Jeremy’s very early JSTOR examples show nicely how this usage might have evolved out of the scalar particle use. The early examples of “What does this even mean?” fit quite nicely into the scalar particle paradigm, along similar lines to not even wrong: Is X true? Is X false? What does X even mean? Before X can be evaluated, it has to reach the “relatively accessible state” of actually meaning something clear.

    (This raises the question of how much syntactic paralellism has to be present in the scalar particle usage. “Is X even meaningful?” is a much clearer example, because of its obvious parallelism to the higher point on the scale “Is X true?”. “Does X even mean anything?” or “What does X even mean?” fit onto this same scale semantically, but not syntactically.)

  40. Chandra said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 3:14 pm

    Thinking about this further, it seems that there's often (or could be) an implied "never mind" phrase attached to many of these utterances:

    How do you even spell that(, never mind pronounce it)?
    How do you even pronounce Ophiuchus(, never mind define it)?
    Why are you even bothering me (at all, never mind asking me such a difficult question)?
    If she has children then it will be because she wanted to and I don't see how that's even entertaining to anyone(, never mind worthy subject material for your next novel).
    I have no idea who that even is(, never mind what he did).
    (Never mind the current line of argument,) but has anyone even considered how that even happened(, never mind why it happened)?
    I can't even stand this thing anymore(, never mind caring about how I could be using it better).

  41. dgroseph said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 3:25 pm

    myl (et al.), i find it interesting that, in my brain at least, i can be satisfied by replacing all of the instances of the purely-emphatic "even" with "possibly".

    this seems to relate to your concept that the purely-emphatic even is a polarity item, in that it concerns something's possibility or impossibility.

    however, employing this replacement does not help me understand why i can use "possibly" this way. can you shed some light on this for me?

  42. Karen said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 3:28 pm

    In most of the examples you give, "even" is a stand-in for "even kind of" – which actually fits in nicely with the documented OED definition and earlier uses.

    Cf: "I can't even kind of stand this anymore" (out of the general feelings of not-being-able-to-stand "this," we are at an extreme case…)

  43. Michael Straight said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 3:29 pm

    Chandra, I think that's a good way of capturing what I see as a subject-changing function of "even" here. The usage Mark is referring seems to always mean "this question or concern is even more important or more relevant than the question or concern I'm responding to."

  44. Tim Leonard said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 3:39 pm

    For a nice illustration of a rise in recent frequency, try the Google Ngram viewer with the string "does that even mean" (without the quotes). Steep, roughly linear, growth starting in the late 1960's, with unmeasurably few uses before that.

  45. Mark F. said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 3:52 pm

    I think Chandra is making a case that these are all examples of the standard scalar particle meaning of "even". I'm not sure how to tell if they are or aren't. If someone thinks they clearly aren't, can you explain why?

    For me and others, this seems to be an example of a non-recency illusion. I would have thought "what does that even mean" had been common for many decades.

    [(myl) There are two questions here: (1) is "what does that even mean" an instance of the same scalar-particle use of even that's been common for centuries; and (2) has this phrase been "common for many decades"?

    With respect to the first question, I think that the answer is "no", but some people disagree, and there's space for disagreement, since no one (including me) is so far making an argument that can be falsified on other than subjective grounds.

    With respect to the second question, plenty of evidence is on the table indicating that the specific phrase "what does that even mean?" has been increasingly common since the mid-1990s, and was sporadic or absent before that. So unless you have some evidence to offer, your belief that the phrase "has been common for many decades" appears to be a false one.]

  46. Hermann Burchard said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 3:54 pm

    @MYL, various Commenters: Wolfgang Pauli may have said "Das ist nicht nur nicht richtig, es ist [noch] nicht einmal falsch!" Wondering if a translated remark by Pauli is a fair example for this Anglo-centric discussion.

    The meaning of "not even" in German would be matched by "[noch] nicht einmal" in all cases I can think of on the spot. Translate literally to "[yet] not once" which would not make sense in English. The "noch" would be optional, I suppose.

    However, "does that even make sense?" translaetes to "hat das ueberhaupt Sinn?" (In neo-German this has become "macht das ueberhaupt Sinn?") Google translates "ueberhaupt" to "at all", so "does that make [any] sense at all?"

    German "eben" as a scalar particle (? cf. Routledge) while cognate etymologically means something like "just" as in "so ist es eben" — "this just is how it is."

  47. Ian Tindale said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 4:05 pm

    I’m 50, British, and didn’t even realise that it was a new usage, nor that it was different to the original meaning of inclusion.

    If “even” was analogous to “flat, equal, alike” then:
    “The whole class knows how to add two plus two, even Jeremy can do that.” implies that the whole class is even in this respect – flat, equal, alike, even Jeremy is included among the other individuals who, it goes without saying, can add two and two.

    Unlike the tulip bubble, and the dot-com bubble, both of which were confidence bubbles, this recent recession was a fear bubble.

    A fear bubble? What does that even mean?

    We may have two or three known aspects or bits of knowledge, which we are already familiar with, but adding an unfamiliar permutation that we request further explanation for simultaneously signals acknowledgement that we class it at about the same level as the other things we have already understood. This new thing is even in this respect – flat, equal, alike. Part of the existing group. On a par. Among the set.

  48. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 4:06 pm

    This may be another way of saying what Michael Straight said, but I hear What does that even mean? as I don't even know what that means reframed as a rhetorical question. Since even added emphasis to I don't even know…, the speaker wants it in the question version and has to find a place for it.

    Or to put it yet another way, I don't know what that even means might be related to I don't even know what that means the way I only found out yesterday is related to the "logical" I found out only yesterday. Related conceptually, maybe not historically.

  49. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 4:23 pm

    MYL has brought up objective falsifiability. As a step in that direction (but not there yet), let me ask: Does I don't know what that even means ever have any semantic difference from I don't even know what that means?

    (I started to post this with I don't know what they even want, which sounded normal to me, and was amazed to find only one Google hit. Does this tell us something?)

  50. 400guy said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 4:39 pm

    At least sometimes, even seems to me to express surprise at what it modifies.  Consider this from Faulkner's Nobel-prize speech.

    Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it.

    Ah, memories of high-school English classes.  Miss Quail, where are you now that I need you?

  51. Steve Kass said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 4:40 pm

    Mark,

    While the specific phrase "what does that even mean?" has been increasingly common since the mid-1990s, a similar use of “even mean” has been around much longer. For example, the Google News Archives for 1900-1950 include many examples like this:

    It might even mean… He didn’t even mean… It can’t even mean…

    Is it possible that in these examples “even” serves much the same purpose as it does in the more recent (within a question) use?

    In these non-question examples, “even” seems to mean “- though it would be unusual (anyway) -” or “(even) stretching the imagination.” As in “It could mean X. It could mean Y. It could even mean Z, but, admittedly, Z’s a real stretch.”

    Could "What does that even mean?" be asking for an answer to “What does that mean?”, while indicating that an answer that‘s a real stretch will be acceptable (because no simple answer is apparent)? I’m not sure why it would have taken decades for someone to consider turning this usage into a question, but it does seem like a possible way to look at this puzzle. (Could there even be a larger issue that only in the last few decades have we started asking more and new kinds of questions?)

    For other uses of “even” in questions that have been mentioned here, it‘s interesting, and might be helpful, to search for previous uses not within questions (e.g., “even happened”). For others (e.g., “even bothering”), it doesn’t seem as helpful.

  52. Emily said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 4:46 pm

    This form of "even" is present in the Internet meme "what is this i don't even", which implies incomprehension ("understand" may be the implied missing verb, but the poster isn't saying it because they're dumbstruck).
    http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/what-is-this-i-dont-even

    This may also be an example. Maybe.
    http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/has-anyone-really-been-far-as-decided-to-use-even-go-want-to-do-look-more-like

  53. Aaron Toivo said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 5:02 pm

    I think the 'new usage' here really is still scalar, and something else is going on: instead of being an adverb that modifies only contituents (c.f. "it is really good"), it has gained a new use as a discourse-level adverb (c.f. "really, it's good"). The new use does not put a constituent on a scale and mark it being at an extreme end, it puts the fact of having to ask the question on a scale and marks it being at an extreme end.

    This is in the same ballpark with simple emphasis, but still a distinct notion:

    a) Simple emphasis of "how do I turn this thing on?" would just intensify the desire for knowledge, but "how do I even turn this thing on?" does not: it expresses that the question is extremely basic with respect to the others you might expect to ask.

    b) "Where do I even go?" – again, you say this not to intensify the question by itself but to mark that you're missing a very fundamental piece of information that you need in order to be able to ask the rest of your questions. It is not possible to ask this question without there being other things you also don't know, about whatever you are to do.

    c) "What does that even mean?" also does not express an increased desire to know what it means, it expresses that the need for this information is at the extreme end of a scale on which there are other pieces of information you need less, or that depend on this one being provided first before you can even consider asking them.

    All of these can also be used rhetorically to express doubt that there is any way to turn this thing on, anywhere to go, or anything that something means. But I think that's a secondary application of the usage.

    -

    Another argument for scalarity: In a series of questions, usually the new usage of "even" will appear only on the first. Whenever it does appear in the middle or end of a question series, it means you have only realized what the biggest or most basic question is partway through asking, and you are requesting that one get answered first. Contrast this with simple emphasis, where any and all questions in a series can be emphasized however much you like and this doesn't really mark anything to do with the questions' relative importance or fundamentalness.

  54. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 5:42 pm

    FWIW, all of these examples would translate into Polish using w ogóle, e.g. what does this even mean = co to w ogóle znaczy*. This is clearly an intensifier, and evidently different from nawet 'even (scalar)'.

    However, the "standard" translation of w ogóle is at all. (Cf. Hermann Burchard's back-translation from German above.)

    So how many of the examples above would work with at all? What does this mean at all? sounds fine to these non-native ears. What about the other ones?

    And, is there any connection at all to the elusive Dutch even, as in Laat ons even kijken? (Something I've never been able to really get my head round…) Probably not, but would anyone kindly enlighten me?

    (*) Often, if not usually, pronounced "irregularly" as /ˈvɔɡlɛ/.

  55. ke said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 5:53 pm

    Anyway, here's my best shot at an antedating: "But the serious proposal of marriage: is that even possible, not to speak of probability?", from John Cann Bailey's 1931 book Introductions to Jane Austen. It's not directly visible on Google Books, but searching GB for "is that even possible" and setting the search limits to 1920-1940 reveals this sentence. But perhaps this is not mere emphasis after all: I'm far from sure of my grasp of the distinction.

    [(myl) The example that you cite is a canonical example of the hoary old "scalar particle" usage — the appended "not to speak of probability" even gives us explicitly another point on the scale.]

    Consider this: What does that even mean, not to speak of truth?

    Here we have the new usage, but with another point on the scale explicitly given.

    I'd say the new usage is just a special case, maybe a slight extension of the scalar usage. It may be starting to develop into an independent purely emphatic usage, but in almost all of the examples you give it can still be analyzed as scalar.

  56. Jonathan D said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 6:00 pm

    There is still a scale involved here, and I think Aaron has said it very well.

  57. Rubrick said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 6:50 pm

    My instinct (agreeing with a few other commenters, e.g. Chandra) is that while this usage is indeed novel, in the examples cited there's an implied (or at least feasible) scale lurking in the background — which is probably why this it sounds unremarkable even to those who predate it.

    In the case of "What does that even mean?", the scale runs from meaninglessness at one end to clear utility at the other; with "How would that even work?", it runs from total impossibility to definite functional success.

    I thought of what seemed a good canditate for antedating in "Why do I even try?" — I know my mom said that during my childhood in the 1970s, and things your mom says have been around forever, right? I did succeed in pushing things back a bit, but a quick Google Books search still reveals no hits earlier than 1951 (in Mabel Seeley's The Stranger Beside Me), and an n-gram search on "do I even try" (to avoid the case-sensitivity issues with "why") flatlines until the 1960s.

    I'd consider the "phantom scale" for "why do I even try?" to run from not bothering up to definitely succeeding. In fact, it feels a little less "phantom" to me than the previous examples, perhaps explaining its earlier appearance.

    Incidentally, a nice example which combines this apparently new sense with another (I'm pretty sure) recent linguistic novelty is "Is that even a thing?", which gets a healthy 165,000 raw ghits.

  58. Chris said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 7:04 pm

    it puts the fact of having to ask the question on a scale and marks it being at an extreme end.

    I think Aaron's description is the most useful one I've seen here. Even seems to be marking questions (How will Kinect swimming even work?) as being simple and fundamental but nevertheless strikingly difficult to answer, and assertions (I can't even stand this thing anymore, I can't see how that's even entertaining) as describing some apparently minimal standard that's nevertheless not being met.

  59. Cole J. Banning said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 7:24 pm

    I can imagine all of the sentences being completed in the following ways:

    How do you even spell that, yet alone use it in a sentence?
    How do you even pronounce Ophiuchus, yet alone know what it is?
    If she has children then it will be because she wanted to and I don't see how that's even entertaining to anyone, yet alone worthy of discussion.
    I have no idea who that even is, yet alone why I should care about them.

    The only one that doesn't seem like it can be adapted meaningfully into some sense of a continuum is "Why are you even bothering me?"

  60. Chandra said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 7:40 pm

    @myl – I agree that there's space for disagreement, but I'd like to respecfully suggest that the burden of proof would be on you to show a clear example of "even" having deviated from its widely-recognized scalar sense, and being used solely for emphasis. In all of the examples I can find, there is a plausible scalar connotation to the sentence, which is what one would expect given its usual meaning. The more unlikely scenario would be that it had suddenly changed course in the last 20 years and completely lost its scalar sense.

  61. m.m. said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 7:55 pm

    Stuart said

    My 17-year-old daughter uses this as the ultimate intensifier:
    "You don't even know how this is."
    I guess I'm too old but I don't even know what that means.

    HA! One of my favourite phrases at the moment that.

    You don't even know!

    Though, I don't even know whether the objective here is about it's "new" use or it's "older 'also used as' use", though it stands a fairly natural usage to me.

    What does that even mean?
    How do you even spell that?
    Why do you even bother with me? Why are you bothering with him?
    I don't see how that's even entertaining to anyone.
    I have no idea who that even is.
    Has anyone even considered how that even happened?
    I can't even stand this thing anymore.
    Is that even a thing?
    So good, I don't even need anything else.
    Why do I even try?
    How do you even do that?
    She wasn't even sure.
    Did they even go?
    How is that even possible?!
    They even danced on fire!

    and of course

    Not even!
    What is this, I don't even… [often reduced to 'I don't even']

  62. Teresa G said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 8:05 pm

    I humbly suggest this is a recency illusion (assuming I am correctly understanding the point being made). Bette Davis can be heard uttering this great quote at the 1:12:43 mark in the 1950 classic "All About Eve"

    "That word–I don't even know what it means!"

    I wish I could find a video clip, but I don't have more time to search for it.

  63. army1987 said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 8:15 pm

    Semantically, it seems quite similar to "the hell" etc. to me. (How the hell do you spell that? How the hell do you pronounce Ophiuchus? Why the hell are you bothering me? I don't see how the hell that's entertaining to anyone.) Are there situations where "the hell" after the question word would work but "even" before the lexical verb wouldn't or vice versa?

  64. army1987 said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 8:21 pm

    @Teresa G:
    That doesn't seem like the same thing as we're discussing (if it were, "even" would be before "means" not before "know"). It's more like "not only don't I [like/commonly use/whatever] this word, I don't know what it means either", i.e. what Liberman calls the scalar particle sense..

  65. Chandra said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 8:25 pm

    @army1987 – Off the top of my head:

    "What the hell is going on here?" vs.
    ?"What is even going on here?"

    "Who the hell are you?" / "Who the hell do you think you are?" vs.
    ?"Who even are you?" / ?"Who do you even think you are?"

    "Are you even listening to me?" vs.
    ?"Are you the hell listening to me?"

  66. Chandra said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 8:25 pm

    @army1987 – Off the top of my head:

    "What the hell is going on here?" vs.
    ?"What is even going on here?"

    "Who the hell are you?" / "Who the hell do you think you are?" vs.
    ?"Who even are you?" / ?"Who do you even think you are?"

    "Are you even listening to me?" vs.
    ?"Are you the hell listening to me?"

  67. Nova said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 8:56 pm

    Here's my analysis, as someone in her mid-20s:

    The 'newer' usage puts the focus on the most essential logical proposition in the phrase, the issue that has to be dealt with before the speaker finds it possible to move on. "What does X even mean?" has the sense of, a discussion surrounding X cannot continue until X is properly defined. "What does X mean?" doesn't carry this same sense. This works even (haha) with examples like, from above, "How are you, even?" where the conversation shouldn't continue, or needs to be back-pedalled, until the speaker has addressed the most basic bit of the conversation (the opening formalities of a phone conversation – how are you?) I get the sense from that particular example that the speaker is emphasizing her interest in the other person's welfare by implying that the conversation is blocked from progressing before that vital inquiry is made.

    I can see the connection between this use and the scalar one – when you say "Even Bill likes Mary" you're identifying the basic starting point of Mary's likability — it tells us that if Bill likes Mary then it's a logical given that most other people like her too.

  68. Nova said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 8:59 pm

    @Chandra – that illustrates that "the hell" and "even" are functioning as the same part of speech in those examples, but that's not the same as meaning the same thing. It's definitely not too much of a stretch, at least in a youthful dialect, to say something like "what the hell does that even mean?"

  69. Nova said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 9:02 pm

    Silly me — that example is actually in the cartoon! "How the [hell] will X even work?"

  70. Nova said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 9:05 pm

    Not to totally overpost here (except I am), but the possibility of "how the hell will X even work" backs up my theory that "even" is not just an emphasizer. "The hell" is emphasizing, and "even" is adding the "cannot proceed without addressing a more fundamental question" aspect.

  71. Nathan Myers said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 10:55 pm

    Of the examples given, only "Why are you even bothering me?" struck me as odd. It savors of ironic usage, suggesting that "bothering me" should be considered, against expectation, an egregious extreme of behavior for one of the offender's social class. Cf. "Why are you even here?", or (even) "Why do you even exist?"

    Of the rest, I am utterly failing to perceive the distinction between the putatively hoary and dewy meanings.

  72. bloix said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 11:01 pm

    "How will that even work" = why are we talking about whether X is a good idea when it seems clear that X is an impossibility?

    "What does that even mean" = I can't begin to decide whether what you're saying is true because what you're saying has no content that can be evaluated with respect to its truth.

  73. Mark F. said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 11:14 pm

    Mark – I'm sorry, actually I did pretty much believe your initial claim that that particular usage was new. It sounded like you'd checked the question out. So that made me realize there's such a thing as the opposite of the recency illusion, since I thought it was old but it had actually become much more common during my adulthood. So that's what I meant when I referred to the "non-recency illusion."

  74. Chandra said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 11:16 pm

    @Nova – I was actually trying to show that they don't function as the same part of speech in those sentences, hence the question marks beside the questionable examples (i.e., ones that I doubt you'd ever hear anyone say).

  75. Hermann Burchard said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 11:19 pm

    @Jarek Weckwerth: "Laat ons even kijken?"
    Found examples like "Laat ons even kijken wat een aantal vooraanstaande denkers hierover te vertellen hebben." I would render this in English "Let us just [now] look what some of the above mentioned thinkers have to say about this," German as "Schauen wir einmal [eben], was einige der genannten Denker hierueber zu sagen haben," [alternate choices]. From this, Dutch "even" ~ English "just" or "now," and ~ German "einmal" or "eben." Thus, there are some contacts between both English and German usages. Also, compare my earlier comment, where "not even" ~ "nicht einmal" and "even" ~ "just". (The discussion here about "scalar" vs. "emphasis" is above my linguistic amateur status.)

    Do these particles have a redundancy function? In my recent writing efforts I have found that a certain amount of redundancy can help with comprehension.

  76. Craig said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 11:28 pm

    Just my two cents, but Chandra's review seems right to me, and this usage feels so completely natural, that I have a hard time believing that it's recent.

  77. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 9, 2011 @ 12:16 am

    In keeping with what Aaron Toivo said, in the long-established I don't even know what that means, isn't even a discourse-level scalar adverb? I don't even know what that means, let alone agree with it or let alone find myself capable of responding to it or the like.

    Yes, I'm still harping on the same string.

    @Cole J. Banning: Sorry to nitpick, but did you mean let alone instead of yet alone?

  78. iching said,

    February 9, 2011 @ 1:30 am

    I support Aaron and Nova. For me, even is a scalar here. "How the heck will Kinect swimming even work?" means "How the heck is Kinect swimming even possible, let alone capable of alleviating psychological traumas?"

  79. John said,

    February 9, 2011 @ 1:42 am

    I'm in agreement with the many who consider this still a scalar usage, with an implied comparison to some other activity that is obviously the topic at hand (e.g., kinect swimming as a possibility compared with it as therapy). That is, a kind of "much less…" could easily follow these usages. (Like Hyman Rosen's "let alone…")

    For its non-recency, does this quotation from the The Harvard advocate, Volume 55 (1983) count? (I suspect myl will say no, as he did for John Cowan above.)

    How can you find the normal atmosphere in books, in life, in anything, where you live so sedulously shut in as here, feeding your lungs on an atmosphere supplied only by your own exhalations? How do you even know that there is a different atmosphere, except through some rude boreal intrusion,— as mine?"

    Imagine only the "How do you even know that there is a different atmosphere" all by itself.

  80. John said,

    February 9, 2011 @ 1:43 am

    Sorry, that was 1893!

  81. Ben Hemmens said,

    February 9, 2011 @ 4:14 am

    John Cowen:

    can't break/get even

    "Ben Hemmens, was that an error on your part?"

    Funny, I actually remembered it as get even but I wasn't sure and changed it to break even after looking it up in Wikiquote.

  82. Nova said,

    February 9, 2011 @ 4:28 am

    @Chandra – Ah! My apologies, it was late at night. To be honest though, all your examples except the last one are phrases that I hear with relative frequency and wouldn't think twice about.

  83. Rachel said,

    February 9, 2011 @ 5:45 am

    I'm surprised no-one has brought up the Internet meme which goes:
    “What is this I don’t even”. No punctuation and no ellipsis. It is certainly possible to complete the phrase in either way – “What is this? I don’t even understand.” Or “What is this? I don’t even give it one out of ten.”
    For my tuppeny-worth I would submit “Why do you even care?”, which I’d contend is perfectly normal English (and has been for, you know, quite a while and stuff ).

  84. Matt McIrvin said,

    February 9, 2011 @ 10:36 am

    It's funny that Pauli and fundamental physics came up; I can't see the phrase "scalar particle" and not think of spinless bosons. (Which are, however, exempt from the Pauli principle.)

    Also, I second "what is this I don't even". I've seen it a lot in just the past couple of years, and still think it's hilarious.

  85. blahedo said,

    February 9, 2011 @ 11:30 am

    @Rachel: Yes, @Emily brought it up a while ago; search back in the thread.

    Most of what I'd write here has been covered by others, but I'll point out that @Aaron Toivo, who well expressed the "this is still scalar" argument, also points out how it is in some sense an innovation. Many others have pointed out the nature of the scale by appending an implied portion such as "let alone …" or "never mind …", but now I'm curious if we can find an example in transition, that is genuinely ambiguous between the phrase-modifier and sentential interpretations (like the "kind of" examples that grace many intro textbooks to illustrate the development of that syntactic construction).

  86. Daniel said,

    February 9, 2011 @ 2:50 pm

    This usage is parallel to a sense of the word "בכלל" (bikhlal) in Hebrew, which usually means "at all".

  87. Michael Straight said,

    February 9, 2011 @ 3:03 pm

    I think a big part of the humor in "what is this I don't even" is that you're so flabbergasted at how many different things you could say that you can't choose one.

    For instance the #1 hit on Google images for the phrase is a nude old man chopping ice with an axe.

    "What is this I don't even…
    …know why you would want to chop holes in the ice."
    …go outside naked when it's warm.
    …want to look at young naked men."

    (with an additional implied, "much less this crazy picture" after each of them)

  88. Mr Punch said,

    February 9, 2011 @ 3:46 pm

    As others have suggested, I see this as basically a version of the scalar "even," and as a marker of sorts for more conventional "even" phrase left an unvoiced. Most if not all of the examples in question could be rephrased in ways like, "Can we even call that a …" or "is it even possible that…"

  89. Ben Hemmens said,

    February 9, 2011 @ 4:04 pm

    I'm with Aaron. I think it's scalar.

    "What does it even mean" is the bottommost of a stack of possibilities.
    If I am confronted with some message expecting a response, a) I have to understand what it means, b-n) i can decide in what depth and how i wish to engage with / respond to / act on its contents.

  90. Colin Reid said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 6:24 am

    The 'even' in the 'implied scalar' construction can associate with just about anything (verbs, adjectives, subordinate clauses, possessive pronouns, adverbial phrases…). Is the same true of the apparently newish construction? "How is that even possible?" comes to mind where 'even' associates with an adjective, but I can't think of one where 'even' goes with a noun where 'even' carries the sense of "X, never mind Y".

  91. Nova said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 6:35 am

    @ Colin Reid – "How is this even a thing?" is currently in popular usage, with the sense of why is X happening, never mind to the extent of Y

  92. Mark said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 1:26 pm

    I remember using it in the mid-to-late 80s in rural North Central Texas. Overusing it in fact, drove me crazy.

  93. Azimuth said,

    February 11, 2011 @ 8:31 pm

    A 1936 occurrence, from a Google Books search on "even mean":

    [page 107]
    What can it even mean to say that the movement of atoms produced at last (in the brains of Leucippus and Democritus) the idea of the atom? Or if we discard the language of cause and effect in favour of the conception of "emergence" and content ourselves with affirming that first there was matter only, and afterwards matter plus mind, then we are left with the alternative …

    - And The Life Everlasting
    - John Baillie
    - C. Scribner's Sons, 1936 – Religion – 294 pages

  94. Around the Web | Savage Minds said,

    March 23, 2011 @ 11:34 am

    [...] Does Language Log even know what they are talking about? Contemporary use of the word "even" reflects 16th Century origins. [...]

  95. Meanings: “What Does That Even Mean?” | The Observatory said,

    May 24, 2011 @ 1:49 pm

    [...] Log gets "even:" a "scalar particle," a "polarity item" and [...]

  96. Ross Arthur said,

    November 24, 2011 @ 10:58 am

    A google books advanced search linited to pre-1970, for the phrase "what does that even mean" comes up with an example from 1969, in a magazine called Midstream, Volume 15, Issues 1-5.

    Pre-1990, there are eght examples.

  97. James Smith said,

    February 23, 2012 @ 11:27 am

    My favorite (and fairly early) example is from "Get Shorty," the movie from @ 1993. Gene Hackman plays a B-movie producer, and is relating a conversation he had with another movie guy about a project. He says "I told him I was interested. What does that even mean in this town?"

  98. shane glackin said,

    September 4, 2012 @ 1:17 pm

    It's a little surprising that the analysis is truncated where it is, since the missing steps to this use of "even" are reasonably straightforward. You're right that it goes through the "extreme case" sense; the next is to recognise the negative of that, "not even". So whereas "even" means that something was done in harder cases than one might expect, "not even" indicates that comparatively easy preliminary hurdles have proven insuperable.

    Now, philosophers routinely talk about things being "not even meaningful", or "not even wrong". Both indicate, in slightly different ways, that a claim has not only failed to be true, but has failed the more basic task of being sufficiently well-formulated to be a candidate for truth.

    So "what does that even mean?" is a pretty straightforward derivation from that; the speaker is indicating not only doubt about a statement's truth, but – as an intensifier – about its truth-aptness.

  99. Walking Wound | Poetry & Contingency said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 6:01 pm

    [...] and embodied as a wound itself be imagined as growing legs and walking around? What does that even look like, let alone even [...]

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