Annals of even

« previous post | next post »

A recent statement to the Washington Examiner about the U.S. government shutdown, by Representative Marlin Stutzman, R-Ind., has been widely reported:

“We’re not going to be disrespected. We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.”

Senate Democrats featured the quote on a display outside their press conference. This is an indication of how Rep. Stuzman's words were generally received, and helps explain why he quickly released a statement walking the quote back:

"Yesterday, I carelessly misrepresented the ongoing budget debate and Speaker Boehner’s work on behalf of the American people. Despite my remarks it’s clear that the American people want both parties to come to the table to reopen the government, tackle this nation’s debt crisis, and stop ObamaCare’s pain."

Since this is Language Log rather than Incompetent Political Extortion Log, our interest is purely in drawing attention to Rep. Stutzman's use of even in its neo-Shakespearean sense, glossed by the OED as "as an intensive or emphatic particle", which might be "[p]refixed to a subject, object, or predicate, or to the expression of a qualifying circumstance, to emphasize its identity". Previous LL discussion of this development:

"What does 'even' even mean?", 2/8/2011
"Can they even prove that?", 5/24/2011
"Even again", 10/21/2011

Adam Rosenthal, one of several people who wrote to draw my attention to Rep. Stuzman's statement, observed in his email that

Looking back at your post, there's something apt about that [KJV] bible quote in the present context:

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



  1. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 4, 2013 @ 1:19 pm

    Can I suggest this again? In declarative sentences with this "even", it has one of its usual meanings, but is moved from the standard position. Thus "And I don’t know what that even is" means "I don't even know what that is" (much less how we're going to get it, or what the details of it will be like, or something—or with the intensifying meaning of "Not even").

    Questions such as "what does that even mean?" can be replaced by "I don't even know what that means" (much less whether it's a good idea, or how to refute it, or something).

    Are there counterexamples?

  2. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 4, 2013 @ 1:25 pm

    Maybe a counterexample is "I don't know if [prosecutors] can even prove that. I don't think it's that strong a case." But that's just weird. The defense attorney is supposed to be saying "They can't possibly have any evidence of that" or "I don't know if they have anything that even looks damaging."

    Also, I'm not the first person to make that suggestion in these pages. Maybe Ø was.

  3. Aaron Toivo said,

    October 4, 2013 @ 2:42 pm

    @ Mr. Friedman:
    I don't think that's quite right. Even though they are functionally equivalent most of the time, there is a subtle difference between "I don't know what that even means" and "I don't even know what that means" – and it lies in what part of the sentence you are drawing a contrast on. The latter case contrasts with statements about other things you might be more expected not to know:
    1a) I don't know why he said that, or even what it means.

    The former focuses on a contrast with other aspects of the thing in question:
    2a) I don't know what that looks like or even means.

    You could distill these into:
    1b) I don't know [X, or even Y]
    2b) I don't know [what that [X, or even Y]]

    So structurally, the "even" is located within a complement to evoke a contrast with a parallel complement.

    That said, I think the difference is subtle enough that people often do not observe it and just pick whichever of the structures sounds catchier (usually the "even means" one).

    [(myl) You guys are stuck in old ways of thinking. In the new (and the way older) interpretation, even doesn't draw any contrast at all. It's just a way of adding some emphatic flavor. In this case, "I don't know what that even is" is roughly equivalent to "I don't know what that is, God help me."

    Anyhow, that's my story and I'm sticking to it.]

  4. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 4, 2013 @ 4:26 pm

    Mr. Toivo: Is there such a distinction in actual use, or only in principle?

    MYL: Some of the time there's a contrast.

    "There’s not a lot of agreement on what that [social gifting] even means, let alone about how best to bring awareness to social gifting and then tie it back to 1-800-FLOWERS" here.

    "You'll be standing there with your MD5 checksum in hand and nobody will give a damn because they have no idea what that even means, let alone care" here.

    "We don't need anymore confusion while calling out our zodiac sign in the club. How do you even pronounce Ophiuchus anyway?" here. I understand that as "I'm not going to cause confusion by calling out 'Ophiuchus' in a club. For that matter, I don't even know how to pronounce it."

    Are there examples that show the new way of thinking about "even" that's neither scalar nor the emphatic "not even"?

  5. Garrett Wollman said,

    October 4, 2013 @ 9:04 pm

    I'm rather intrigued by the fact that other people even notice this. It seems totally unremarkable to me.

  6. JS said,

    October 4, 2013 @ 11:11 pm

    A question like "Did you even touch him?" might be treating "touching him" as first base and asking "did you get so much as there?", but it could also be treating "touching him" as home plate and asking "did you get so far as all that?" That is, (1) "I didn't even touch him" (a good answer to the first version) is not just a negation of (2) "I even touched him" (a good answer to the second version); even doesn't effect the truth value of these propositions but rather invokes a larger mental space in which the proposition in question is positioned as an "extreme" one:

    (1) I didn't beat him up > I didn't grab him > it's even true that I didn't touch him
    (2) I saw him > I approached him > it's even true that I touched him

    This is why stuff like "what does that even mean?", as opposed to "does that even mean anything?"/"do you even know what that means?"/"do you know what that even means?", is novel and slightly weird: the proposition on which even should operate has gone missing, replaced by a wh- question which is not gradable as just above — in the sense it "ought" to be. Still, we detect that it remains a rhetoricalish question treating "meaning something/anything" as probably-unreached first base:

    3)That is not profoundly meaningful > That is not mildly meaningful > Isn't it even true that that doesn't mean anything?

    So we are starting to see stuff (googled) like "You know what, who did he even beat?" (unreached first base: he beat a halfway creditable opponent); "I mean really, what did she even do? sharpen pencils?" (unreached first base: she did something halfway significant), etc. This is interesting and in these newer cases as well as the older is surely more than just emphasis.

  7. Bart said,

    October 5, 2013 @ 2:48 am

    I don’t how relevant you will find this but in Dutch the word ‘even’ is very common and often virtually meaningless:
    For example: ‘I’m going to take a shower.’ can be correctly translated as ‘Ik ga douchen’. But in most contexts a Dutch speaker would probably slip in the extra word ‘even’. Thus ‘Ik ga even douchen.’

  8. julie lee said,

    October 5, 2013 @ 12:15 pm

    " in Dutch the word ‘even’ is very common and often virtually meaningless"

    "Virtually meaningless" is not "completely meaningless". So how would you explain the difference in meaning between "Ik ga douchen" and "Ik ga even douchen"? I don't know Dutch but I'm curious.

  9. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 5, 2013 @ 5:25 pm

    Garrett: That's how I felt when some high school textbook pointed out that "I only want a hamburger" might be taken as meaning something different from "I want a hamburger and don't want anything else." (Actually, it made considerably stronger statements.)

    So do you understand these sentences with "even" as making a scalar comparison with something unstated?

    JS: Still, we detect that it remains a rhetoricalish question treating "meaning something/anything" as probably-unreached first base

    Apparently some of us do, including me, and some of us don't.

  10. Bart said,

    October 6, 2013 @ 2:54 am

    @ Julie Lee
    Rather than get into an exploration of degrees of meaninglessness I’ll JUST mention a couple of things:
    1 If translating the above sentence into Dutch you would translate the JUST as EVEN.
    2 The conscientious translator of ‘Ik ga even douchen.’ might well put ‘I’m JUST going to take a shower.’
    3 On the dictionary site I found this interesting example: ‘Neem EVEN een moment en adem EVEN rustig . .’; suggested translation: ‘JUST take a moment and take a breath . . ‘. Here the translator has judged (rightly IMO) that ‘JUST take a moment and JUST take a breath . . ‘ would be over-emphatic in English.
    4 Another interesting one from the same source: ‘Mevrouw de Voorzitter, ik vraag nog EVEN de aandacht van de afgevaardigden’; suggested translation: ‘Madam President, I would ask for the attention of the House FOR A MOMENT’ Here the EVEN and FOR A MOMENT make the request sound less peremptory. The suggested English translation is not ideal, because it implies that the person making the request wants to speak briefly and not go on for a couple of hours; the Dutch doesn’t have this sense.
    So these and such examples would be relevant to any theory about the meaning of EVEN.

  11. Nissemus said,

    October 6, 2013 @ 7:02 am

    I'm rather bemused by the assumption in previous articles that "even" as a modifier is a recent phenomenon. It has been common usage in British English since at least the 1950s.

    [(myl) Adverbial even has been around in English since the 9th century (and probably earlier, given that there are cognates in Old Frisian, Old Saxon, Old High German, etc.). As discussed in the cited post, the meaning morphed from "uniformly" (i.e. "in an even manner" or "to an even degree") to "exactly", to a mere intensification or emphasis of the identity of the thing it modifies; and then at some point in the 16th and 17th centuries, it developed a new scalar sense, implying that the modified phrase "expresses an extreme case of a more general proposition", as the OED puts it.

    The OED goes on to explain that

    "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."

    More recently, this scalar sense of even has (I believe) begun to be bleached out in common usage, so that that in many cases, even is returning to the purely-emphatic or intensive sense seen in Shakespeare or in the King James bible.

    If you mean that this reversion began in British English in the 1950s, that's interesting -- can you provide some citations?

    If you really mean only what you literally say, namely that even was used in 1950s British English as a "modifier", i.e. as an adverb and/or adjective, that's not exactly a news flash -- in that respect, 1950s British English was like all other varieties, starting before "English" split off from other Germanic dialects, and continuing up to the present day.]

  12. Nissemus said,

    October 6, 2013 @ 10:33 am

    Well, I've been hearing and saying things like "that joke's not even funny" since I was a toddler. Perhaps I've completely misunderstood this discussion, in which case I apologise.

  13. jeff said,

    October 6, 2013 @ 12:20 pm

    And what does it even mean when a politician gets $ 944,824.91 in farm subsidies with his dad ( ) but then complains about wasteful government spending?

  14. RG said,

    October 6, 2013 @ 8:36 pm

    For some striking examples of "even", try doing a Google search for strings like "what is even this" or "what are even these". Some false positives turn up, but a lot of genuinely innovative uses of "even" appear, including

    "my god, what is even this song. It's amazing."
    "And, what is even this picture? Seriously…just WHY?"
    "What is even this show, oh my god."
    "what is even this plot? i refuse to make sense of her character. just be color and shit with ridic japanese humor and i'll watch."
    "what are even these feelings i can feel right now"
    "What are even these poses this guy is making?!?!"
    "what are even those chrysanthemums omg i cant even those petals i might take them out later ahahahaha"
    "what is even that fandom tag i have"
    "What is even that third image? Don't forget to breathe while playing 3DS? Don't try to play 3DS while poisoned, go to a doctor?"

    …and so on. I imagine these are meant to be pronounced with the stress on "is". It seems to be popular in certain online communities (anime, fan fiction, video games, etc.). Some of these might be examples of nonnative usage, but I suspect at least some (and probably most) are novel extensions of (quite likely nonscalar) "even" by native English speakers.

RSS feed for comments on this post · TrackBack URI

Leave a Comment