When Kacey Musgraves won a Grammy for Best Country Album in January, she couldn’t even. When Jezebel writer Laura Beck saw a video of a hamster nibbling on an ear of baby corn, neither could she. And after Entertainment Weekly named John Green’s young adult novel The Fault in Our Stars as one of its 10 best fiction books of the year, the author wrote on his Tumblr: “I will endeavor to regain my ability to even.”
I can’t even is now a sentence. It’s an efficient, Internet-inflected way of saying “I can’t even express how I’m feeling right now.” And as Musgraves’ acceptance speech demonstrates, the phrase has spread to spoken English as well.
Predictably, some people can’t even with I can’t even. They’re upset that what they view as lazy Internet slang is finding its way into the mainstream. “If you find yourself in a troubling position where you can’t even, I implore you to slow down and speak with enough declaration so that your thoughts are complete and not just recurring fragments,” Devin Largent wrote on Thought Catalog. And Mother Jones included I can’t even on its list of the worst words and phrases of 2013.
But critics who dismiss this construction and its cousins—I actually just can’t, I can’t with you, I have lost the ability to even—as sloppy shortcuts for people who can’t be bothered to complete their sentences are misguided. I can’t even is just the latest iteration of an ancient figure of speech. It’s established enough to have a fancy Greek name—aposiopesis.
The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics defines aposiopesis, which derives from siope or “silence,” as: “A speaker’s abrupt halt midway in a sentence, due to being too excited or distraught to give further articulation to his or her thought.” It’s the ultimate embracing of your high school English teacher’s advice to show, not tell. Instead of saying she or he is at a loss for words, the speaker actually demonstrates it.
This rhetorical device dates back to at least the first century B.C., when Virgil used it to depict Neptune’s utter exasperation with some troublemaking wind gods in the Aeneid: “How dare ye, ye winds, to mingle the heavens and the earth and raise such a tumult without my leave? You I will—but first I must quiet the waves.”
Aposiopesis also crops up in King Lear, when the title character rages at his ungrateful daughters:
I will have such revenges on you both
That all the world shall—I will do such things—
What they are, yet I know not: but they shall be
The terrors of the earth.
Centuries later, the Three Stooges pioneered a still classic example with “Why I oughta …,” one of Moe’s many exclamations (and not his only aposiopetic one—“Why you …”).
People have been using I can’t even as a form of aposiopesis since at least 2010, when Urban Dictionary described it as “a full sentence, well only on tumblr.” Though the phrase has gained currency offline, Tumblr and Twitter are indeed teeming with struggling souls who #canteven. And users of that hashtag appear to be predominantly female—not surprising, given that women tend to be at the forefront of most linguistic trends.
Incidentally, this use of “even” fits a larger pattern that Mark Liberman of Language Log has noticed over the past two decades. He wrote that when used as an adverb, “even” no longer does exactly what the Oxford English Dictionary says it does, which is “intimating that the sentence expresses an extreme case of a more general proposition” (as in “Even Bill likes Mary”). Instead, people are using it purely for emphasis (as in “What does that even mean?”).
So are Americans suffering from a profound lack of ability to process their emotions? Maybe. Are they suffering from a profound lack of communication skills? Definitely not. They’re simply doing more with less.