I was struck recently by the way an English person I know used the word ever in a situation where I would have expected to hear always. It wasn’t that the usage sounded wrong to me, quite the opposite, in fact. The meaning was clear from the context, but there was more to it than that. I kept thinking about it for a few days, trying to figure out why substituting ever for always just seemed to make sense.
At first glance the words look very different, but while we often (at least in American English) use them in different situations, they do in fact serve a quite similar grammatical function; both are adverbs and tend to be used in such a way as to mean an open-ended, indefinite, duration of time.
Consider the definitions for ever given by Dictionary.com, which are pulled from the Random House Unabridged Dictionary:
- At all times
- At any time
- In any possible case
In the same source, always is defined as:
- Every time
- All the time
- At any time
Given that the words occupy such similar conceptual space and, at least in some dialects, can be used interchangeably, I wondered why they looked so different; they seem clearly to come from different roots.
Ever comes from the Proto-Indo European (PIE) root *aiw, which means “vital force, life, eternity.” This became, over time, *aiwo in Proto Germanic, ei in Old Norse, ie in Old High German and je in modern German. There are a number of related words that follow a similar pattern, such as every and the German word ewig, meaning “forever.” Interestingly, German dialects such as Bairisch (spoken in Bavaria and Austria) and Schwäbisch (spoken in Baden-Württemberg and Southwestern Bavaria) tend to be more conservative (i.e., closer to the reconstructed ancestor languages) and their words for ever are oiwai and äwe, respectively.
Always, on the other hand, comes from the Old English phrase ealne weg, which means “all the way,” and seems to have referred to time from the beginning of its recorded usage.
Dutch and the Scandinavian languages take a similar approach to English, with the word for always generally being a compound meaning “all the time” or “for all time”:
- Dutch- altijd
- Swedish/Norwegian/Danish- alltid
- Icelandic- alltaf
The German word for always, however, is immer, and it doesn’t follow the same pattern as English and the Scandinavian languages. As it turns out, immer goes back to the Old High German word iomer. This turned into iemar in Middle High German and, eventually, into immer in Modern German. The earlier forms of the word provide a clue to its origins as a compound of ie, meaning “ever,” and mer, meaning “more” (these would be je and mehr in Modern German).
So, while ever and je come from the same root, always and immer have different antecedents but end up in the same semantic space. I’m not sure that the specific differences in their makeup have any significance, but it is a nice example of the ways that elements of different but related languages end up being combined in various ways to create similar meanings.