“Good evening,” said the scary voice on the radio, “and welcome to — Lights Out. Turn your lights out.” And the boy in Bill Cosby’s comedy skit The Chicken Heart says, “Yeah, I got ’em out, go ahead, go ahead and scare me.” So he ends up hearing the tale of the Chicken Heart — the Chicken Heart That Ate New York City. He wasn’t supposed to turn on the radio, but to stay in his bed while Mom and Dad were out. But of course he jumped out as soon as they were gone, and as soon as he determined that there were not any invisible poisonous snakes under his bed ready to bite him on the toe if he got out of bed.
“Snakes! Snakes,” he cries, “I gotta go to the bathroom!” But there was nothing, so he got to hear about the Chicken Heart and get scared to death, with some hilarious consequences.
Mom and Dad weren’t even with him, and he wasn’t even with them. To be even means to be on the same level, and that’s what the sun is doing as it slopes down to the earth in the latter end of the day. A number is even if you can split it in half, one side the same as the other. That brings me to the Prime Number Pizza Theorem, which states that given any pizza delivered to any party, the number of pieces will be relatively prime to the number of people ready to eat them. So if you have three people, the pizza will inevitably be divided into eight, and if you have four people, somehow the cook will have managed to divide it into seven or nine.
The word even used to be quite active in forming new words. You’d put it at the beginning of a noun, and it meant that something was the same as something else, or a fellow to it. So you should treat your evenchristian with the same courtesy and grace you would yourself appreciate. Or if like Saint John you fell in awe at the feet of an angel, he might bid you to rise, “for we are evenservants of one Lord.” But my favorite even- word is an earthy one, for sure! Little babies would sometimes be given over to the care of a wet nurse, and that meant that you’d be nursing along with another baby, your foster brother or sister, so that the two of you would be, in Middle English, even-suckers! A far piece from the cynical advice of the comic W. C. Fields, “Never give a sucker an even break.”
Eve is short for even, not by abbreviation, but by the mistaken sense that the -en was an inflectional ending and not part of the original word. After all, we’ve tossed a lot of the -en endings from many of our words: it’s how we got drunk from the original drunken, and we’ve reduced the adjectives silvern, leathern, and cedarn to the bare nouns used as adjectives, silver, leather, cedar. And no, our word eve and the name Eve are unrelated. The name is Hebrew, Hawwah, related to the verb hai, to live: since she was, as Adam said, to be the mother of all the living. But eve, in English, has acquired a sense separate from that in evening. The latter names the time of day. The former gives us an anticipation of the next day.
How many eves do we still have in English? Let’s see: there’s Christmas Eve, and New Year’s Eve, and, still hanging on, Easter Eve, along with, in its thoroughly obscured and degraded form, All Hallows’ Eve. The whole notion of an eve, now, is that it anticipates a great and holy feast, so that if you don’t have many such feasts, you won’t have eves. A lot of evenings, and only a few eves; like oil without flavor, sport without fun, music without melody. Sounds rather sad, doesn’t it? But maybe we should remember how the ancient Hebrews thought about it. They didn’t see our Word of the Week, evening, as the end of something, but as the beginning: the soft light of evening, giving way to night, and then breaking forth into broad day. Not the night then but the day is the full reality, the aim, the peak to which the night is just a preparation.
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Word & Song is an online magazine devoted to reclaiming the good, the beautiful, and the true. We publish six essays each week, on words, classic hymn, poems, films, and popular songs, as well a weekly podcast, alternately Poetry Aloud or Anthony Esolen Speaks. To support this project, please join us as a free or paid subscriber.