English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Is there evil in Eve?

Q: Could there POSSIBLY be a linguistic connection between “Eve” and “evil”? Or is it just too slick an idea?

A: Nope, there’s no connection between “evil,” which comes from old Germanic sources, and the name “Eve,” which is derived from Hebrew. The similarity in sound is purely coincidental.

“Evil,” written as yfel in Old English, was definitively recorded as a noun around the year 825 and as an adjective in 897, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

But it could be even older, since the plural form ylfa occurs in Beowulf, which may have been written as far back as 725.

During the Middle English period (roughly 1100-1500), the word was written as iuele, uvel, üvel, and finally evel, predecessor of the modern spelling.

It appears that in English, “evil” acquired a worse reputation than it had in the Germanic languages it came from.

The word has been traced to an Indo-European root, reconstructed as upo-, one of whose meanings was “over.” In prehistoric Proto-Germanic, this root developed into ubilaz, or “excessive.”

“Considering these original usages, as meaning ‘over’ and ‘excessive,’ ” Hajime Nakamura writes in A Comparative History of Ideas (1992), “it is not too surprising that some of the world’s greatest traditions developed concepts of a ‘mean’ (nothing to excess) as the absence of evil.”

As the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, the ancient ancestors of “evil” conveyed notions of  “either ‘exceeding due measure’ or ‘overstepping proper limits.’ ”

Originally, the English word “seems to have signified nothing more sinister than ‘uppity,’ ” John Ayto writes in the Dictionary of Word Origins.

Ayto notes that “in the Old and Middle English period it meant simply ‘bad’; it is only in modern English that its connotations of ‘extreme moral wickedness’ came to the fore.”

The name “Eve,” on the other hand, is derived from biblical Hebrew, where the name of the first woman is given in Genesis 3:20 as hawwa. This name became “Eva” in Latin and Greek translations of the Bible, and “Eve” in later French and English translations.

As for what the original Hebrew name means, that’s been the subject of much scholarly debate over the years.

A common suggestion is that hawwa means “life” or “living” or “life giver,” assuming a connection with the Hebrew haya (to live) or hay (living).

However, biblical scholars have questioned such a connection, saying there’s no direct linguistic link between hawwa and the other two words.

Some scholars say hawwa may have been a play on those other Hebrew words, or perhaps the words were indirectly connected through other Semitic languages.

“In sound but not derivation, the name Eve in Hebrew resembles the Hebrew word for ‘life,’ ” Leila Leah Bronner writes in her book From Eve to Esther (1994).

But etymologies relying on only sound, she writes, “are popular rather than scientific. Instead of attempting to derive its linguistic root, they create puns around it, relying on its sound to invent its sense.”

Some commentators seeking etymological explanations for hawwa have noted resemblances with an Aramaic word for “serpent,” an Arabic verb meaning to “be empty” or “fail,” and hivi, Hebrew for the Hivites, a Canaanite tribe.

The scholar Victor P. Hamilton, in his biblical commentary The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1-17, says that as many as 10 etymological explanations have been offered.

Another scholar, Scott C. Layton, an authority on ancient Semitic languages, says some names in the Hebrew Bible are grounded in symbolism rather than etymology (“On the Canaanite Origin of Eve,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly, January 1997).

“Symbolic names form part of the rich fabric of biblical narrative by expressing their bearers’ fate, character, or role in the story,” Layton writes.

Sometimes biblical texts themselves, he says, “provide popular or folk etymologies, on the basis of Hebrew, for names whose original meanings lie at the margins of the Hebrew lexicon, or even outside it.”

“Certainly hawwa falls into this category,” Layton says, “and it occasions no surprise that modern scholars have offered several different interpretations of this name.”

That’s all about “Eve.” However, we should mention the other “eve,” the noun for the close of day. It’s short for “even,” an Old English word that meant the same thing—the day’s end.

In ordinary usage, both “eve” and “even” have been replaced by “evening,” which etymologically means the coming on of the eve, the OED says.

The noun “eve,” like “even” in times past, means not only the end of a day, but also the night (often the day as well) before a particular event—as in Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve, All Hallows Eve, and so on.

All these words can be traced to a prehistoric Indo-European base with the general meaning of “lateness,” according to Ayto.

Speaking of which, it’s time for us to get to the next question in our inbox.

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