When I last addressed the word even, in 2013, it had already migrated from its accustomed function as an adverb in such sentences as “I can’t even move this suitcase, much less pick it up” or “Even vegetarians sometimes have a hankering for bacon.” The Oxford English Dictionary elegantly gives this traditional meaning as:
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.
By the time of my post, the word had for some time established itself -- in expressions like “What does that even mean?” “I don’t even know you,” and “Is that even a thing?” -- as, in Mark Liberman’s formulation, a “purely emphatic” intensifier. I noted that it had migrated “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.”
Four and half years on, there are some new things to say. Well, one is an old thing -- in the original post, I somehow neglected the expression, “I can’t even,” which had gotten its first Urban Dictionary definition in 2010 (sic throughout):
Yes thoes three words are a sentence a full sentence, well only on tumblr. is often used when something is either too funny, scary, cute, to have a good reaction too.
girl: “it was so awkward”
girl2: “OMFG AHAHAHA I CAN’T EVEN”
Its popularity peaked in late 2013, some months after my post (which is my unconvincing excuse for whiffing on it). In October of that year, according to the Know Your Meme website,
the Tumblr blog TheBunionPaper published a satirical news article titled “Rich Girl in Dining Hall Can’t Even,” accumulating upwards of 1,900 notes in seven months. On November 20th, the feminist culture blog The Toast published an article about Internet linguistics, which described the meaning of the expression “I have lost all ability to can.” On January 26th, 2014, country music singer Kacey Musgraves repeated the phrase “I can’t even” during her acceptance speech for Best Country Album at the 2014 Grammy Awards.
Not surprisingly, Liberman and his Language Log colleagues have been all over “I can’t even.”
Know Your Meme credibly traces the expression to the earlier-emerging, “I don’t even,” which it cites first in a 2007 message board. However, three years before that, Regina used it in the movie Mean Girls: “She’s so pathetic. Let me tell you something about Janis Ian. We were best friends in middle school. I know, right? It’s so embarrassing. I don’t even ... Whatever.”
Tina Fey’s Mean Girls is linguistically astonishingly fruitful; my sense is that it reflected and created, in equal measure, loads of new ways of talking. The screenplay is a veritable symphony merely in its uses of the modern-day even, including “What does that even mean?” and these exchanges:
- Crying Girl: “I wish we could all get along like we used to in middle school ... I wish I could bake a cake filled with rainbows and smiles and everyone would eat and be happy ...” [about to cry] Damian: [shouting from back] “She doesn’t even go here!” Ms. Norbury: “Do you even go to this school?” Crying Girl: “No ... I just have a lot of feelings ...”
- Regina: “Cady, do you even know who sings this?” Cady: “Um ... the Spice Girls?”
- Gretchen: [to Cady] “Two years ago she told me hoops earrings were her thing and I wasn’t allowed to wear them anymore. And then for Hanukkah my parents got this pair of really expensive white gold hoops and I had to pretend like I didn’t even like them and ... it was so sad.”
- Cady: “What do we even talk about?” Janis: [shrugs shoulders] “Hair products!”
The latest even development takes it a step beyond I can’t even. In that construction, a following verb is implied and elided: “I can’t even [begin to express how funny/scary/cute/whatever the thing I’m reacting to is].” But now that’s thrown aside and even is a pure signifier of emphasis, improbability, and disbelief. I first encountered from Jon Danziger (@jondanziger) who tweeted on November 17, apropos of a confounding news item, “What is this even?” I asked him about it and he reported it is a favorite of his students at Pace University.
I can’t precisely determine when “What is this even” emerged. The Washington Post journalist Aaron Blake used it on Twitter in May of this year:
Searching on Twitter as I write this, I find an abundance of hits, most without Blake’s comma and question mark:
What’s next for even? Sorry -- even I can’t.