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A question posted today asks about the Use of “ever” in non-negated sentence, and one answer happens to mention the phrase "ever and anon." That phrase, with the meaning "occasionally or repeatedly," goes back at least as far as Shakespeare, who writes in Henry IV (act 1, scene 3):

And 'twixt his finger and his thumb he held/A pouncet-box, which ever and anon/He gave his nose, and took't away again.

But did "ever and anon" always carry this meaning? The meaning isn't intuitively obvious to me from its components because, in this setting, I think of ever as meaning "always" (though in other situations it can mean "at least once") and anon as meaning "soon" or "later." If not, what was the original meaning of the phrase? If so, how did it emerge from the separate meanings of ever and anon?

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Ever and anon has the same meaning as the other idiomatic expression ever and again; the OED mentions the latter under the now again definition of anon. –  The Frog Mar 7 '13 at 0:39
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As a child I was puzzled and amused by a sign on delivery vans that read "Truck constantly stopping". I imagine that in 1600 the coach to Avon had painted on the back "Vehikle pauseth ever and anon." –  Fortiter Mar 7 '13 at 0:46
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Ever means at any time. But in modern English, it is strictly an NPI, and can't occur with the "choose one" sense of any that occurs with modals, like Anybody can figure this out (i.e, *He can ever figure this out is ungrammatical in modern English). But Shakespeare is not modern English, and that's the sense of ever that occurs in ever and anon. –  John Lawler Mar 7 '13 at 2:22
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There are a lot of negative environments; note that positive, comparative, and superlative constructions are negative triggers. And Spanish doesn't have NPIs, because it has negative concord: No tengo nada is not a double negative; it means I don't have anything, the same way jamás sometimes translates never and sometimes translates ever. –  John Lawler Mar 7 '13 at 16:36
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BTW, what is the question that is apparently being sought an answer for? If it were clear and answerable I'd take a crack at it. But questions like "Did 'ever and anon' always carry this meaning?" are not answerable because nothing ever stays the same forever -- and of course also because meaning is not "carried" but constructed. –  John Lawler Mar 15 '13 at 17:11
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5 Answers

Indeed, ever and anon goes back at least as far as Shakespeare, who used it in Henry IV, Part 1. Wikipedia says it "was almost certainly in performance by 1597" and "was entered into the Register of the Stationers Company on 25 Feb. 1598, and first printed in quarto later that year".

But how much earlier does the phrase go?

Probably not much further, as the earliest quotation in the Oxford English Dictionary is also by Shakespeare, in Love's Labour's Lost just a few years earlier:

Euer and anon they made a doubt.

The OED has the first known publishing as 1598 and Wikipedia says it is "believed to have been written in the mid-1590s for a performance at the Inns of Court before Queen Elizabeth".

Often people claim Shakespeare was the coiner of this-or-that many thousand words in the English language, but it's often the case that as a writer of many famous plays, it's more likely his use has survived the ages when someone else may have written it earlier and we've lost their text. People may have already been using them in unrecorded speech for decades. His use is often the most well-known, and dictionary compilers liked to include his quotations in dictionaries.

As a good example, I found an eight-year antedating in The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia (1590, Book II) by Sir Philip Sidney:

But euer and anon turning her muzzell toward me, she threwe such a prospect vpon me, as might well haue giuen a surfet to any weake louers stomacke.

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I've sent this antedating to the OED so they can update the entry. –  Hugo Dec 16 '13 at 15:12
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Anon \A*non"\, adv. [OE. anoon, anon, anan, lit., in one moment)

  1. Straightway; at once. [Obs.]

    The same is he that heareth the word, and anon with joy receiveth it. --Matt. xiii.

  2. Soon; in a little while.

    As it shall better appear anon. --Stow.

  3. At another time; then; again.

    Sometimes he trots, . . . anon he rears upright.--Shak.

  4. At once; right off.

    Anon right --Chaucer.

[source]

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Ever and anon, in our case means now and then; frequently; often which can be easily confirmed if we go through the following excerpt.. [Henry IV (act 1, scene 3):]

My liege, I did deny no prisoners.
But I remember, when the fight was done,
When I was dry with rage and extreme toil,
Breathless and faint, leaning upon my sword,
Came there a certain lord, neat, and trimly dress'd,
Fresh as a bridegroom; and his chin new reap'd
Show'd like a stubble-land at harvest-home;
He was perfumed like a milliner;
And 'twixt his finger and his thumb he held
A pouncet-box, which ever and anon
He gave his nose and took't away again;
Who therewith angry, when it next came there,
Took it in snuff; and still he smiled and talk'd,
And as the soldiers bore dead bodies by,
He call'd them untaught knaves, unmannerly,
To bring a slovenly unhandsome corse
Betwixt the wind and his nobility.

Which clearly means that every now and then the fair, neat and clean person, one who is referred as to fresh as bridegroom smelled the bottle between his fingers.

Hope I have answered your query.

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To me the meaning of 'ever and anon' is quite clear: Something happens 'ever', without ending, and at the same time 'anon', which means later. Therefore, a process which 'endlessly' repeats with a certain delay between recurrences.

You questioned the history of this phrase because you don't think the words fit the meaning. By that argument I say it was always used as it nowadays is (insofar as it is used at all), because it says what it means :).

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So it's obvious what ever means. Anon means soon or shortly and it's origin is (as one could see here)

Old English on ān 'into one', on āne 'in one'. The original sense was 'in or into one state, course, etc.', which developed into the temporal sense 'at once'

I don't think that it ever carried a different general meaning

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I searched and best results I get is thesaurus.com, dictionary.com and asked my friends from U.S. and U.K.

ever and anon is equivalent to now and then expression which is pretty intuitive that it means occasionally.

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