English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

When the postman came twice

Q: In editing a book on tramways in Australia, I came across a puzzling phrase in old correspondence: “in response to yours of even date.” I finally worked out that the response was to a letter sent the same day—that is, “of today’s date.” This reminded me of when we used to have two mail deliveries a day.

A: Yes, the phrase “of even date” means “of the same date” or “of today’s date,” according to the Collins English Dictionary.

Here the sense of “even” is equal in magnitude, number, or quantity—not “even” as in divisible by two.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes the phrase as “common in U.S.; in England chiefly in legal language.”

Common in the United States? This is news to us, since we’ve never come across it before. Our guess is that it’s always been confined to legal or business language.

In fact, Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage (3rd ed.) would like to see “even date” less common in legal usage too.

Bryan A. Garner, a lexicographer and lawyer, writes that the usage “originated in commercialese but has affected lawyers’ writing as well. The best practice is to name the date a second time or to write the same date.”

Written examples for the usage date back at least as far as the mid-17th century. The earliest we’ve been able to find is from a legal document entitled “The Commission for Discoveries,” written by Oliver Cromwell and published in 1656:

“We have by Our Letters of Privy Seal, bearing even date with these presents, given full Warrant and Authority in that behalf, to the said Commissioners of, and for Our Treasury to allow and pay the same accordingly.”

The use of the phrase “even date” in the sense of “today’s date” or “the same date” was probably common in commercial writing during Cromwell’s time.

It was familiar enough to be included at least seven times in a clerical manual of the same era, The Clerk’s Tutor for Writing (1667), by Edward Cocker.

The manual is a collection of mock legal documents that illustrate the proper forms clerks should follow. Wherever one document refers to another of the same date, the phrase “bearing even date with these presents” is used—a formula that’s still found in legal writing today.

The OED cites only two examples of the expression “even date.” The earliest is from a document dated March 10, 1681: “Reciting an Indenture of even date therewith.”

Oxford also has this 19th-century example: “By deed of even date he covenanted to pay all calls in respect of the shares.” (From the Weekly Notes, London, 1885.)

In closing, we’ll quote a poem that appears, with many flourishes, in the front of that 17th-century clerks’ manual:

Your book, arme, pen, right forward place.
Your breast from board, yo[ur] head vpright.
Your fingers strait, minde every grace.
Move your pen freely, beare it light.
Full, small, height, depth, & distance mark.
These, with proportions, make a Clerk.

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