Looking under the 'eves' at the holidays

How did we end up with meaning both 'day before' and 'evening of'?

Is it really a New Year's Eve party if it starts at 11:30 in the morning?

This was the burning question in this editor's life the other day. (No wonder I'm behind in my Christmas shopping.) A little research was in order: Yes, as of the late 13th century, eve has been well established to mean the day before a saint's day or festival – or, to put it in more universal terms, the day before a holiday.

How did we end up with eve meaning both "day before" and "evening of"?

Even, from the Old English æfen, originally meant "evening," as in the opposite of morning. Sometime before the year 1200, the "n" got broken off somehow – people thought it was an "inflexion" (inflection) of some sort, according to the Online Etymological Dictionary, evidently quoting the Oxford English Dictionary. Evening came into the language in the mid-15th century, a "verbal noun" meaning "to become evening, grow toward evening." The new word crowded out even, which, minus its "n," had acquired its "evening before" or "day before" meaning.

Even lives on in at least some dictionaries as an alternative for "evening," and so does eve.

Although some dictionaries mark such usages "archaic" or "literary," others do not. The American Heritage, for instance, bats not an editorial eye at even. And so if I send a note from my phone, "Getting back Friday aft – dinner Friday eve?" I'm in the good graces of at least some of our standard reference works.

This is a time of year when you might say there's a lot of " 'eves' dropping." Eve is also used to mean not just "the day before," but more loosely "the time before," usually in the context of grand ideas, "sweep of history" stuff: "on the eve of World War I." Journalists love it because it's short.

But then come the holidays, and we find "eve" showing up in sentences like, "Do you know how late the hardware store is open on Christmas Eve?"

At this time of year we also get into other odd combinations, such as Christmas Day night, or New Year's Eve day. Arguably the party alluded to above will be a "New Year's Eve day luncheon."

The helpful little notes in my day-planner remind me that the Hebrew calendar reckons days starting in the evening; Dec. 20 is marked "Erev Hanukkah," for instance – "Hanukkah Eve," in other words, however odd that probably sounds.

The biblical book of Genesis concludes its account of the creation of the heaven and the earth and then the day and the night thus: "And the evening and the morning were the first day." The same formulation continues through the remaining six days.

And so it would seem that not only did the Almighty create the heaven and the earth in seven days, He did it while working the swing shift. (And, as the techies' old joke has it, the reason He was able to do it was that He didn't have any legacy software to deal with.)

I find no etymological or other justification for this, but I rather like the idea of "evening" as a real verb, evening out, balancing out, reconciling, closing out the accounts for the day, and looking ahead to tomorrow.

May all your eves even out through the holidays and into the new year.

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