What Does ‘What Does That Even Mean?’ Even Mean?

WHAT-EVEN-IS-THISPullum’s e-mail read, “Most things, yes.  It’s a bit of a problem.  I have often written pieces that then had to be just tossed in the electronic trash because he published a longer and better discussion before I was finished. And I ought to be five hours ahead of both of you, on UK time.”

He was responding to my own e-mail, which asked, simply, “Does Liberman get to EVERYTHING first?”

“Liberman” would be Mark Liberman, professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, and the co-founder, along with Lingua Franca’s own Geoffrey Pullum, of the super-awesome blog Language Log. The sheer number of Mark’s posts demands an adjective that goes well beyond prolific. The upsetting thing is that they’re usually really good, too.

Maddening as well is his nose for what’s in the linguistic wind right now—a quality that I associate more with journalists than with academics and that has bit me in my own nose on more than one occasion (as it has Pullum). What prompted my despairing e-mail was my intention to write a Lingua Franca post about what seems to me a new use of the word even. It first struck me in hearing (or reading) interrogatory statements—usually although not always from the mouths or keyboards of young people—along the lines of “What does that even mean?” and “What even is that?” and “Is that even a thing?”

Sitting down to work on the piece, I exercised due diligence and looked to see if anything had been written on “the word even” (which was my search phrase). Sure enough, Liberman had covered it. More than two years ago.

His piece “What Does ‘Even’ Even Mean?” starts with his observation that such expressions “have recently become common.” They are in contrast, he notes, with the customary use of the word as a “scalar particle,” specifically following the elegant definition 9 in the Oxford English Dictionary (which labels it an adverb):

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

Even traditionally (this is me talking now), even is remarkably versatile in the variety of verbal units it attaches itself to and rather complicated things it intimates. Consider: The philosopher Cratylus, responding to Heraclitus, supposedly said, “You can’t step into the same river even once” (much less twice.) Casual acquaintances could not be expected to inform you that you have bad breath, but it’s such a shameful condition, according to a Listerine ad, that “even your best friends won’t tell you.” Tom Robbins called his novel Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, implying that the blues are such a common state than even as otherwise cheerful a group as cowgirls will sometimes fall under their spell. Johnny Mercer wrote, “Hooray for Hollywood, where you’re terrific if you’re even [that is, merely] good.” Faulkner supplied both the general proposition and the extreme case when he said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

But contra Pullum, in this case I decided not to throw my initial work into the electronic trash, because even after Liberman’s post, there is more to say on the subject.  For one thing, taking What does that even mean? as the standard-bearer for the new even (which I’ll henceforth acronymize as NE), Mark traces it back a 1993 Buffalo News article. I’ve found a considerably earlier use, in a 1969 Midstream magazine reference to Che Guevara: “How was he a great revolutionary? What does that even mean?” (Midstream is a Jewish magazine, and in a 1976 article in Response: A Contemporary Jewish Review, I found, “As to paragraph four, I don’t know what that even means,” leading me to speculate that there may be a Yiddish influence. Who knew?)

The other form NE  commonly takes is What even is that? and I found a version as early as the 1997 book Psychologizing Algebra (quoting a 1994 interview): “Like the black hole. I can’t conceive of what that even is.”

Moving to current usage, are some recent NE examples I’ve collected:

 1.     “Do conservatives even want to win? (Headline from The Week)

 2.      “I relate to just being a disgusting man and feeling bad that my wife even has to be around me.” Judd Apatow quoted in People magazine (instead of “has to even be around me”)

 3.     “Which senior staff even know about Picard’s secret Sex Bridge?” (@KenJennings on Twitter. Hey, I just collect them—I have no idea what they even mean.)

 4.     “How did [Nikki Finke] feel about being in a list of bachelorettes? Is she even really a bachelorette?” (Village Voice blog)

 5.     “Reviews of the new Bud Light Platinum beer say that it tastes worse than Bud Light. HOW IS THAT EVEN POSSIBLE.” (Facebook status)

 6.     “Oh, I also woke up with a missed call from my mother, no doubt to wish me a happy Good Friday (is that even a thing)” ( blog, quoting an e-mail)

Liberman describes NE as “purely emphatic,” that is, not explicitly or implicitly attached to the OED’s  “more general proposition,” and says it seems to him “a polarity item, in that it only works in a range of contexts including negation and questions.” The latter appears to be mainly true (though the questions outweigh the negations, and Number 2 is neither), but I submit that NE isn’t always “purely emphatic.”

It is, to be sure, in a quote like  “Do conservatives even want to win?” The even is similar to in fact or actually and puts the whole sentiment in a kind of italics. Same with a question I asked my wife a few hours ago: “What date even is it today?”

However, in other examples you can extrapolate the implied comparison. What does What does that even mean? mean? Something along the lines of, “The statement just made is so random, I do not even comprehend it, much less have an opinion/interpretation/judgment on it.”

In other cases even has moved to an unexpected part of the sentence, so that is ostentatiously not “prefixed … to the particular word, phrase, or clause” it has to do with. Thus Judd Apatow would traditionally have expressed regret that his wife “has to even be around me”—much less consort with him in more intimate ways. He’s moved even the same way only has long been moved when one colloquially says “I only want to do one thing,” instead of “I want to do only one thing.” Similarly, Is she even really a bachelorette?=the old-fashioned Is she really even a bachelorette?, with a positional twist.

Such shifts are generally carried by the young or marginal groups who want to put their colorful stamp on the language, and so it is here, and so it will always be. The rest of us will always be playing catchup, even Mark Liberman.


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