Twelve years ago, when a cousin wondered how long I’d be able to keep coming up with column topics, I declared that there’s probably a column lurking in every word in the dictionary.
To prove this, I opened a dictionary and jabbed my finger on a word. That experiment led not only to the June 20, 2000, column on “to burke,” but also to a randomly inspired piece every year since.
Let’s look at evermore this year.
Dictionaries are unanimous: evermore is an adverb meaning “forever; continually; always; constantly.” As long ago as 1776, when Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was published, evermore meant, “always; eternally.”
American Heritage has declared evermore obsolete except in the phrase, for evermore. An obsolete word is one no longer in use.
Other dictionaries never suggest obsolescence, but American Heritage may be right. How long is it since you’ve heard evermore used? Ever?
It’s hard to find quotations using evermore, but here’s a great one: “Their name liveth for evermore.”
This inscription appears on The Stone of Sacrifice, a monument erected in every military cemetery of the First World War. The words were suggested by Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) who sat on Britain’s War Graves Commission. This sentence is not Kipling’s. It’s from Ecclesiastes 44:9. “Their bodies are buried in peace; but their names liveth for evermore.”
In the 1826 hymn, Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty, we find these words: “God in Three Persons, blessed Trinity ... which wert, and art, and evermore shall be.”
Here’s another biblical example: “The Lord shall preserve this time for evermore” (Psalm 121).
It’s important to remember the Bible wasn’t originally found in English, so its language is the language of interpreters. In the case of the King James Version (1611), we find mostly Elizabethan English although the compilers tried to retain much of the previously used translation — The Bishops Bible.
Nevertheless, we must assume evermore was in use in England in the early 1600s.
Both biblical passages cited above illustrate something interesting about evermore, something noted by American Heritage. Evermore is usually preceded by the preposition “for.”
This coupling of for and evermore eventually led to the elimination of more leaving us with the new compound forever, which carries the same meaning as evermore.
When forever entered English, it was spelled as two words — for ever. We see this spelling in works written a couple of hundred years ago. Perhaps the best-known example is in the John Keats poem, Endymion: “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever” (1818).
Forever has been used in English since about 1858. For ever is perhaps a hundred years earlier. Evermore is dated to 1600.
Evermore is a meld of two Old English words — mare (greater) and aefre (always). Ultimately, both words are from Old Teutonic.
In Old English, evermore was aefrema, but this was often shortened to ay. Interestingly, forever and aye is still sometimes heard.
By the time of Middle English, aefrema had evolved into evermo and from evermo we eventually got evermore.