If the day has been odd, you need an evening out. Indeed, the evening evens out not just your moods and the odds the day has stacked against you; it evens out the light – gradually to nil – and the colours, too: as Graeme Edge of the Moody Blues wrote,

Cold-hearted orb that rules the night
Removes the colours from our sight
Red is grey and yellow, white
But we decide which is right
And which is an illusion

You decompress and the colours desaturate. But the light levels are not so even – if you are near light sources, the light is reliable and directional, but highly contrasty. This is why I like photography in the evening: as Robert Browning wrote,

Was never evening yet
But seemed far beautifuller than its day.

The long /i/ that opens evening gives ease, but the /v/ vibrates still… and then it soothes as it fades back in the mouth from the /I/ to a final nasal, the tongue rolling out like a wave relaxing away from the shore (perhaps on Echo Beach). An evening may have verve; it may even bring a frisson (think of a sepulchral tone greeting you with “Good evening”). It is when you go to the theatre or the club. But it is not the bright yang of the day; all finally subsides into the yin, the valley spirit (v), the dark half. The bright masculine angel of the day falls (as in William Rimmer’s famous painting “Evening: Fall of Day,” well known in a modified form from the labels of Led Zeppelin records – see www.johncoulthart.com/feuilleton/2008/07/19/william-rimmers-evening-swan-song/), Apollo recedes, to be replaced by the evening star – Venus. And Adam gives way to Eve.

The eyes grow heavy-lidded e and e, the only salience is the candle i, and at the end it descends further g to night… The evening stretches from dinner to bed, when mother night overtakes us and we are level.

Laurie Miller, in suggesting this word to me, wrote, “The ‘evening’ has a lovely sound. Does it reproduce the effect on a landscape of the daylight’s dying? Colours do even out, and differences in texture and elevation go away. Is that awareness, of diminishing differences as night comes, common in other languages?” Well… the first question is whether that is even where it comes from.

Of course, the homonymy with even as in “level, flat” has an undeniable effect in English. But it is in fact a coincidence. Evening comes from a word even that we still see in uses such as eventide as well as in shortened eve form; it comes from Old English æfen, cognate with Dutch avond and German Abend. Even as in “divisible by two” and “level, flat” (and “equally”, even) comes from efen, cognate with Dutch even and German eben.

In other languages, the form may be quite different from one for “level” or “flat”  (and some do not distinguish evening from night at all). French has soir, and Italian sera, but Spanish and Portuguese have tarde, focusing on lateness; Mandarin has wan (or more fully wanshang), which is also used in reference to lateness; Latin has vesper; Hebrew has erev (which makes me think of the song “Erev shel shoshanim,” “Evening of Roses”); Irish has tráthnóna (said sort of like “tra no na”), while Breton has abardaez; Slavic languages tend to have a “v-ch-r” pattern, as in Polish wieczór and Russian вечер vecher (which makes me think of the song “Podmoskovnie vechera,” commonly but not quite accurately called “Moscow Nights” in English); Finnish has ilta and Indonesian has malam… These generally have nothing in particular in common with evenness, but all have flavour sets of their own in their own languages.

But in English the two have come to have parallel forms, and so we may multiply the meanings. Think of two lines = and in them find equality, levelness, divisibility by two (and indeed the Chinese numeral for “two”), but also the horizon and clouds at sunset, and the table of food, and the body or bodies in bed. Two is the only even prime number; all others are odd. We may think of odd numbers and prime numbers as like the day – oppositional, singular, yang – and even numbers as like the night – receptive, cooperative, soft, yin, recessive in addition but dominant in multiplication – and we may see that there is one place that the two meet, the romancing of the numbers at the conjunction of the prime and the even: evening. The phrase at even and at prime means “at all times of the day,” but we know that evening is when it all comes together.

3 responses to “evening

  1. Eventide or Twilight is quintessence of evening in my opinion! Do you know, by any chance origins of ‘Foolscap’?

    • It comes from a watermark of a fool’s cap (i.e., jester’s hat) that was once used on that kind of paper. That’s actually on my list of words to taste… (I have a list of a couple of hundred that I will eventually get to!)

  2. Pingback: e’en | Sesquiotica

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s