Daily Archives: October 24, 2011


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.

What would you need in order to know if this is right?

A colleague asked about a sentence such as “What additional information would you need in order to determine if XYZ will actually happen?” Should the will also be would?

The answer is that it depends. Is the possibility of XYZ happening also contingent or hypothetical? If it’s something that may or may not happen regardless of whether you make a determination in advance, then “will” is preferable:

If you were a weatherman, what information would you need in order to determine whether it will be cloudy tomorrow?

On the other hand, if XYZ’s occurrence is hypothetical, then “would” is correct:

If you were obsessed with a star, what information would you need to determine if he/she would accept your proposal of marriage?

It’s possible to have a hypothetical with bearing on a real event, so we can’t insist on concord between the conditionals without looking at the sense.

Incidentally, some people will insist that you should always shorten in order to to plain to. In fact, while there are places where the shortening can be accomplished to good effect, there are others where bare to would be ambiguous:

These are the dishes I need in order to cook. [Without these casseroles and plates, I can't cook.]

These are the dishes I need to cook. [I need to cook these dishes.]

And how about if versus whether?  While whether is more formal and has no possible ambiguity, if is very well established in such usage, and has been used by far better authors than the ones who will tut-tut you for using it. Again, consider tone and clarity.


I went on a road trip with two friends today. As we were driving across the Burlington Bay Skyway, we observed the quasi-stygian landscape (Burtynskyesque) of the steel mills. But it’s really quite a tame sight now compared to what it once was; one has the sense of the steel industry gradually fading into twilight years. I recalled my first encounter with Hamilton, as a child, when a family friend, driving me and my brother from the airport in Toronto to my dad’s childhood stomping grounds in Buffalo, had us put on masks to protect our lungs from the air there; when we stopped for gas, the air had a definite orange cast.

My friend Alex’s response? “It made spectacular sunsets.” True enough: clear air makes for fairly plain sunsets – the more crap you have in the air, the more spectacular the sunsets tend to be (as long as you can see them), layered like crepe paper, sometimes with almost muscular striations (though, in the wrong smog, creeping and pustular). Your eyes tell you to breathe deep the gathering gloom (to quote from the Moody Blues); your lungs beg you not to.

But I mislead: crepuscular does not relate to sunsets, not directly. Rather, it relates to what follows them, something that comes in ample quantity in boreal latitudes and is brutally fleeting in the tropics: twilight.

Oh, great, now I’m going to get people coming to this page because they were searching for stuff on vampires. Ugh. I haven’t read the Twilight series, so I have no direct comments on its merits, but in general I’m not strongly inclined to read about creeps and corpuscles. It sounds craptacular to me. I’m not here for tweens (other than exceptionally literate ones); I’m here today to talk about the between times – between night and not night. When darkness covers us, it is not the vampire’s cape, not the shades we are dragged into by a creeper, but rather the dull crepe of the creper, which is Latin for “dark”. Make a diminutive of that and you have crepusculum, the lesser darkness: what we experience as the suddenly frantic half-dark.

The Romans tended to use the term more for dawn than for dusk, it seems, but dusk is more in our experience now. True, many of us in northern countries wake in the pre-dawn twilight for much of the year, but few people are not up and about and looking out during the dimming hours. It’s a time when we probably finish work and settle into our home-oriented routines, perhaps to settle in for a favourite sitcom, or go out for leisure and pleasure. The word twilight has a certain dreamy quality to it, an echo of night and a persistence of light. But the word crepuscular, an adjective for twilight, is more likely to send a shiver down the back, as though some unexpected furry thing were brushing against you, or perhaps a chupacabra were licking its chops in your carport.

True, this word hides sup and even super backwards, but in its crisp crackle and hiss (reminiscent of the sound from an old gramophone record set to play by a fireplace in a cabin in the grasslands a century back) we find no plenitude of positive associations as it passes over our tongues and by our eyes in a forward direction. Some people will like the taste of this word, but there are others who find it – as Elaine Phillips, in requesting this tasting, put it – sinister.

Still, even the not-pretty can have aesthetic value. The hazy air of Hamilton’s harbour presented a prepossessing picture. And from there we rode on, not into the sunset or twilight but just to Buffalo, where one of us owed the other two of us lunch (for losing a bet), at the Cheesecake Factory – we may not be Twilight fans, but we do watch The Big Bang Theory.