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It is New Year's Eve today, and there are other eves throughout the year. What would be a good Latin translation for "eve"1? The English word appears to be etymologically related to "evening" and means the day before.

Two possibilities come to mind: pridies (which is not classically attested but which I defended in relation to another question) and vigilia (suggested by Cerberus in chat). Yet another possibility is taking a Latin expression for Christmas Eve of New Year's Eve and extrapolate from that.

My current best guess is to write pridies sive vigilia in order to make it clearly understandable, but I'm not entirely satisfied. How would you translate "eve"? New coinages are fine if there is a sound reasoning behind.

Happy New Year to our site and all its users!


1 Or the Finnish "aatto", which I believe to be equivalent with "eve". To reiterate the key question in Finnish (as the word I really want translated is the Finnish one): Miten sanotaan "aatto" latinaksi?

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There are three major holidays that come to mind when considering "eve": Christmas Eve, New Year's Eve, and Halloween (All Hallows' Eve). When one looks up those holidays in the Morgan and Silva Furman University Lexicon, you get the following:

  • Christmas Eve = pervigilium Natalis Christi
  • New Year's Eve = perviligium anni novi
  • Halloween = pervigilium Omnium Sanctorum

Obviously, the common thread is pervigilium. Classical attestations do not appear to exist as far as I can tell, but there is a poem called "Pervigilium Veneris" dated from between the 2nd and 5th centuries that uses the term in the way we would consider "eve" to be used. Lewis and Short have a brief entry on the term, and it literally means a "watching through the night." This makes sense when one considers the English term, which, like you mentioned, comes from "evening." Nowadays, the term "eve" corresponds to the entire day before a holiday, but the tie to "vigil" and the corresponding vigilia reflect the idea that this term originally meant the evening before the holiday. This phenomenon still exists in English, as demonstrated by the Easter Vigil, a celebration of Easter during the evening before Easter Day.

In summary, I suppose that vigilia would work, but I would go with pervigilium, as there is more evidence for its usage.

  • Thanks! This sounds very promising. (Side note: In Finland we have four major events with an eve: Christmas, New Year, first of May, and Midsummer. There must be several local variants out there.) – Joonas Ilmavirta Dec 31 '17 at 22:52
  • John Keats poem 'St Agnes Eve.' (figurative use) – Hugh Jan 1 '18 at 3:06
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    The French for 'eve' is 'veille' which also means 'vigil' (as in watching through the night) and it would appear that 'veille' derives from 'vigilia' (fr.wiktionary.org/wiki/veille) – Penelope Jan 1 '18 at 8:29
  • Which is really just to say that, in the French mind, an 'eve' and a 'vigil' share the same conceptual basis (keeping watch throughout the night before), which I thought might give further ballast to your argument :) – Penelope Jan 1 '18 at 8:36
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Although the English word 'eve' is often used poetically for 'evening', it is in fact fairly common and far more usually means 'the [whole] day before'; I suspect that its use to mean 'vigil', or something similar, is now almost wholly archaic — or, at most, confined to religious occasions.

In newspapers we might (seasonally!) read of what the Queen did on the eve of her departure for Christmas at Sandringham; of ministers arriving in Brussels on the eve of a new round of Brexit negotiations; of celebrations on the village green on May Eve (sc. April 30th), or preparations at Stonehenge on the eve of a Solstice; and so on.

The sense is exactly that of the Latin pridie, a common enough word in that it is used in dates (prid. kal. Iun etc) and occasions such as 'the day before battle', pridie proelium, and a host of others. Alternatives are also possible, e.g. by using sub, as in sub diem pugnae, examples of which should be readily found in war histories. Horace (Od. 1, 8, 14) also supports this usage when he has sub lacrimosa Troiae funera.

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*EDIT: Please see my comments below to clarify what I see as the difference between small-e eve and capital-E Eve.

For what it's worth, I think both answers above (those of Sam K and Tom Cotton respectively) are correct depending on what kind of "night before" you mean.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, eve is indeed a derivation of evening. However, as Tom Cotton notes, eve is typically used to mean "the day before". This use is apparent quite early, circa 1290. Later (1780), eve was also used to mean "the time immediately before an event". Note that evening nevertheless remained in use to mean that period between dusk and nightfall which is an indication of how eve and evening diverged in meaning.

It's not surprising then that the OED uses eve in exactly this way to define vigil: "the eve of (i.e. preceding) a festival or holy day, as an occasion of devotional watching or religious observance" (OED). This is what is meant by Easter Vigil (as in Sam K's answer), when you stay awake in prayerful contemplation of Christ's resurrection the following day. To that end, Christmas Eve could also be thought of as a sort of vigil, awaiting the birth of Christ. Indeed, attending Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve is surely a vigil in this sense.

The reason I have spent time unpacking the English is that I think eve is a bit of a quirk of English in that it can mean "the time preceding an event" tout court and yet is also applied to events of significance (temporal or religious). But whereas the English can straddle these two uses, my feeling is that Latin differentiates between them.

To this end, I think pridie does mean "eve" in the practical sense of "the time before".

Yet, pervigilium seems more suitable for things like Christmas Eve and even New Year's Eve in that these are a "time of devotional watching" before a festival or holy day. Further, on reflection, I think that pervigilium is preferable to vigilia because Lewis & Short specifically note that pervigilium is "a devotional watching", whereas vigilia is more "a keeping awake for the security of a place".

This difference is apparent in Livy:

... castra Campana ut in pervigilio neglecta simul omnibus portis invadit

... the Campanian camp being unattended because of the vigil he invaded via all the gates at once

History of Rome, 23.35

Gracchus is able to invade the Campanian's camp at midnight because they were keeping a vigil (pervigilium) before a sacred festival. The terrible irony is that if they had been keeping vigil (vigilia), they would not have been caught unawares!

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    I think this is a really helpful answer. However, I'd like to point out that 'vigil' and 'eve' are not really synonymous, at least in modern English usage. The former is an intentional action; the latter is merely a period of time, in the sense of the original enquiry. – Tom Cotton Jan 2 '18 at 12:40
  • I understand "eve" in the sense of the period before something, as in "the eve of war", to be an extended sense of "eve" meaning the day before. And I understand "eve" in the sense of the day before something, as in "New Year's Eve", to be an extended sense of "eve" meaning the evening before. Notice that "New Year's Eve" primarily evokes parties running late into the night, and secondarily means the whole day. When Santa Claus is said to deliver presents on Christmas Eve, this means during the night, etc. … – Ben Kovitz Jan 2 '18 at 22:39
  • … Not that any of that should distract from your main, insightful point, which is that "eve" in English does not carry any suggestion of a "watch", nor does pridie carry any suggestion of evening, so Latin doesn't have an exact equivalent to "eve" (unless someone else can think of one). – Ben Kovitz Jan 2 '18 at 22:43
  • @TomCotton What I was trying to say is exactly that, ‘eve’ and ‘vigil’ aren’t synonymous in English and yet capital E-Eve is used typically for days that were traditionally vigils on the small e-eve of a feast day in the Christian church. Thus, to me, ‘Christmas Eve’ (an intentional action, to use your definition) is not the same as ‘the eve of Christmas [day]’ (merely a period of time). Similarly, All Hallows’ Eve. – Penelope Jan 2 '18 at 23:30
  • @Tom Cotton (cont'd) New Year’s Eve is a sort of hybrid; in some Christian denominations, it is marked by a Watchnight service, which is a vigil; in the secular world, it is just the eve of the new year but of course people intentionally stay up to see in the new year and, in this way, it is a sort of vigil. – Penelope Jan 2 '18 at 23:31

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