Etymonline purports that the adverb 'even' originates from

Old English efne [1.] "exactly, just, likewise." Modern adverbial sense (introducing an extreme case of something more generally implied) seems to have arisen 16c. from use of the word to emphasize identity ("Who, me?" "Even you").

  1. What semantic notions underlie meaning #1 (bolded overhead) to #2 beneath from ODO?

4 ‘she couldn't even afford the essentials’


[2.] so much as, hardly, barely, scarcely

  1. Which category fits this Semantic Shift? I'm guessing Metonymy?

This blog (that references Larry Horn's 1969 paper A Presuppositional Analysis of 'Only' and 'Even') doesn't answer my question.

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    What semantic notions do you think underlie 1 and the synonyms in 4, please? Where is your research or even suggestions? Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 19:37
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    @RobbieGoodwin Your 1st question: I'm clueless. 2nd: I divined a semantic connection myself, not from any external suggestion.
    – user50720
    Commented Nov 24, 2017 at 22:09
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    @RobbieGoodwin Your 1st question: By 'clueness', I meant not being able to divine, and so being clueless about, any possibilities for the semantic notions. 2nd question: The cause for the question is these different meanings' belonging to the same adverb, which suggests some underlying notion.
    – user50720
    Commented Nov 25, 2017 at 22:39
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    @RobbieGoodwin The difficulty is that I'm not sure how to research such semantic shifts, besides searching on OED and Etymonline?
    – user50720
    Commented Nov 29, 2017 at 5:54
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    I see no reason to presume any kind of shift at all. The original meaning still applies. All that's happened (as with thousands of other words) is that additional senses have been added over time. That aside, I'm also unclear why you think that she couldn't [so much as] afford the essentials means something notably distinct from she couldn't [exactly] afford the essentials. In short, I don't think I agree with your premise that there's been a shift. Commented Apr 22, 2020 at 19:07

1 Answer 1


The two relevant meanings in the OED are A.7 (also A.6) and A.8, both in the branch II. of A. Your meaning [1.] fits with OED's A.7., and your meaning [2.], with OED's A.8. Here are the relevant entries in the OED:


II. In weakened use as an intensive or emphatic particle. (In later use many uses of senses in this branch show some suggestion of sense A. 8.)

6. Fully, completely; quite; all the way to, right to. Formerly often preceding numerals; in later use chiefly in even to (or unto), in which use some suggestion of sense A. 8 is often present. Now archaic.

1667 J. Milton Paradise Lost iii. 586

His Magnetic beam..Shoots invisible vertue even to the deep

1888 C. M. Doughty Trav. Arabia Deserta I. ii. 30

The strutting tail flowed down even to the ground.

1918 E. S. Eells Tales of Giants from Brazil ix. 151

The prince was praised throughout the kingdom and there is talk of him even unto this very day.

1997 J. Walsh Forty Martyrs Eng. & Wales 4

Martyrdom..means bearing witness even unto death.

a. Prefixed to a subject, object, or predicate, or to the expression of a qualifying circumstance, to emphasize its identity, or to reinforce the assertion being made about it; namely, that is to say, truly. Now archaic.

1954 J. R. R. Tolkien Fellowship of Ring ii. viii. 394

Maybe thou shalt find Valimar. Maybe even thou shalt find it.

Used to convey that what is being referred to is an extreme case in comparison with a weaker or more general one which is stated or implied in the adjacent context. Prefixed to the particular word, phrase, or clause in which the extremeness of the case is expressed.

2007 Time Out N.Y. 18 Jan. 24/3

Even the newest New Yorker knows that the furthest eastern border of Greenwich Village is Fourth Avenue.

In the comment to the meaning 8., the OED states (emphasis in bold mine),

Now the prevailing use of the word in English. The use is not attested in other Germanic languages. It is rare in regional use, and (though a natural development of A. 7) seems not to have arisen before the 16th cent., and took time to become fully established.

So, the semantic trajectory of even (in the sense that interests us here) began with it being an intensive or emphatic particle, to which gradually there became attached the connotation that the object of this emphasis is an extreme case in comparison with other similar cases (which are either stated or implied). As others have said in the comments, this sort of change is more of a progression than a shift; even the OED calls is a 'natural development' and says that it is hard to draw the line of where one ends and the other begins ('In later use many uses of senses in this branch show some suggestion of sense A. 8.'). We see one way this worked in the examples provided with A.6. One started using even in the phrases even to or even unto, which initially meant fully to, but then the implication of that being an extreme case was added. This is not particularly surprising, given that fully to implies that the thing being reached might be distant or big, i.e. extreme in some way.

It is not clear that there is a special name for this kind of etymological evolution. It doesn't sound like metonymy is relevant, given that metonymy is 'a figure of speech in which a thing or concept is referred to by the name of something closely associated with that thing or concept' (e.g. referring to the U.S. presidential staff as the White House, i.e. by the name of the building that contains it). More generally, none of the tropes listed on the Wikipedia's article 'Figure of speech' seem relevant.

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