If it’s later than afternoon, but not night yet, what time is it?
No, that’s not the start of a terrible dad joke. The answer is, of course, “evening.”
But when is evening, exactly?
Let’s take a look at the complicated nuance, and long history, of this seemingly simple word.
What time is “evening”?
There is no exact definition of “evening” that ties it to a specific time of day. Typically, however, “evening” refers to the period between dusk or twilight and the onset of night, when the sky is fully dark. Because the sun sets at different times of day in different places and at different times of the year, it means there’s no exact time period that can be assigned to “evening.” That said, in many cases people use “evening” to mean after around 6p.m..
This is not the only way the word can be used, however. Sometimes, “evening” can be used to refer to any time after work hours are over.
People may also use “evening” in a generalized way to refer to a vague time period after afternoon, which unfortunately also doesn’t have a specific definition, but before night.
In some regions and dialects, you may also hear people use “evening” to refer to any time of day after 12p.m. or noon.
Generally speaking, though, “evening” can be understood to refer to the time of day when it’s starting to get dark but there’s still a little light left to see by.
The etymology of “evening”
Evening has a very long history in the English language.
It’s been with us in its current spelling since roughly the 1600s, but its meaning in English stretches back to Anglo-Saxon (Old English), where it was spelled “ǣfnung” and is recorded from the late 900s.
And, in fact, according to Wiktionary it’s not even a borrowing in Anglo-Saxon, but rather can be traced in a direct line to, Proto-Germanic, the early ancestor of English which was used as far back as 500 BCE.
Proto-Germanic is a reconstructed language, meaning it was constructed by modern scholars based on comparative research, so of course we don’t know for sure what the exact word for “evening” was or how it was spelled or pronounced.
Our best guess, though, is ēbanþs (pronounced something like “evanths”).
No matter the pronunciation, evening is a very old word.
But what, exactly, does it mean?
The possible meanings of “evening”
The exact time-frame for “evening” is up for debate, and the short answer is that there is no precise answer.x
Although this seems like it shouldn’t be so hard to figure this out, the reality is that a lot of factors go into figuring out when evening starts.
Sometimes there are just cultural differences, but for most meanings of “evening” the chief factor is when the sun sets.
Because the time of sunset is determined by the axial tilt of the planet (that is, the season) and your latitude, this means any definition of “evening” is also going to vary.
For instance, if you live in North Dakota and it’s autumn, “evening” is going to start a lot sooner during the day than if you live in Florida and it’s the middle of summer.
That said, we need to have something to go by, so let’s look at a couple of dictionary definitions.
The Oxford English Dictionary, considered an authority on the English language, lists two possible definitions for “evening.”
Wiktionary, an open-source dictionary created by its users and arguably a better benchmark of current usage, lists two slightly different definitions.
Although, as already discussed, there’s no definitive answer here, these are useful guideposts as we consider the common meanings of “evening.”
Evening as starting at sunset or 6 p.m.
The first definition the Oxford English Dictionary gives for “evening” is “the close of day, especially the time from about 6 p.m., or sunset if earlier, to bedtime; the period between afternoon and night.”
This is actually three definitions in one. The first, “the close of day,” is a little poetic and maddeningly non-specific, but is probably what the majority of people mean when they use the word “evening.”
The second definition here adds a slightly more specific start time, 6 p.m. or sunset.
The end of this suggested period, however, is “bedtime,” which must vary even more than sunset does.
On the other hand, if we consider “bedtime” to be the end of a day no matter when it is, and night to be what happens while you’re asleep, this definition makes quite a bit of sense.
The third definition suggests a broader, albeit equally vague, start time: “afternoon.” When does afternoon end? When evening begins, presumably.
Evening as any time after midday
While there is a bit of variation in definition one, our second Oxford English Dictionary definition blows the gates right off: “The period between midday and night; the afternoon. Now regional.”
By this description, evening starts at noon and lasts until the end of the day. In other words, it’s kind of a synonym for afternoon and the previous definition of evening stuck together.
It’s important to note that this is a regional usage, so unless you’re in a region where this is what people mean when they say “evening” you probably shouldn’t use it.
That’s not because it’s wrong as such, but because it’s going to confuse people if they are not used to thinking of “evening” in this way.
Between dusk and night
Unlike the Oxford English Dictionary, both of Wiktionary‘s definitions hinge on “dusk,” a word that refers to the period of time after the sun has sunk below the horizon but before the sky is completely dark.
The first of this set of definitions says that evening as “the time of the day between dusk and night, when it gets dark.”
Although “between dusk and night” is about as helpful as “between afternoon and night” (that is: not at all helpful), the second part of this definition gives us another angle to approach evening.
If it’s starting to get dark, but isn’t dark yet, you can say that it’s evening.
The exact times will still depend on the time of year and your location, of course, but at least you don’t need to figure out when sunset is. Just look around, determine if it’s starting to get dark, and go from there.
Using work hours to define evening
The last definition for “evening” we’ll look at is also from Wiktionary.
“The time of the day between the approximate time of midwinter dusk and midnight; the period after the end of regular office working hours.”
Interestingly, this is the only definition we’ve reviewed that specifies the time of year. It also puts a much later end time on “sunset.”
Although it could be useful to consider midnight, rather than the vague “night,” as the end of sunset, trying to figure out the approximate time of midwinter dusk if it’s currently summer sounds like an exercise in frustration.
The second part of this definition adds another angle: working hours.
If we assume “regular office working hours” to mean 5 p.m., this gives us a time period that’s in line with the Oxford English Dictionary’s start time of 6 p.m.
Like with “bedtime,” the use of office hours here means the exact period of sunset will vary.
All the same, it makes sense that people who work regular hours would use their job to split their day into distinct periods.
Language as a descriptive, not prescriptive, tool
Although many people will speak about “correct” language usage, the fact of the matter is that language is a descriptive, rather than prescriptive, tool for communication.
Put simply, that means that from a linguist’s point of view there isn’t any such thing as “incorrect” usage.
Instead, we might speak about “non-standard” uses of a word.
The same is true for dictionaries. They aren’t really intended to assign a single “correct” meaning. Rather, they’re ways to see how people use a word in real life.
If you’re out to prove a bet by looking up the “real” meaning of the word evening, that’s bad news, because it means you can’t really use a dictionary to argue that the “right” way to use a word is whatever its definition says.
On the other hand, the descriptive nature of dictionaries, and language in general, means we have a much more flexible and usable tool to communicate our experiences to others.
With that digression out of the way, let’s take a look at what various language authorities say about the word “evening.”
So, wait, when does evening start?
The common element in most of our definitions is sunset or dusk and darkness, so if you really need a specific answer, your best bet is to consider “evening” to be any time between when the sun starts to go down and when it’s fully dark.
Hey fellow Linguaholics! It’s me, Marcel. I am the proud owner of linguaholic.com. Languages have always been my passion and I have studied Linguistics, Computational Linguistics and Sinology at the University of Zurich. It is my utmost pleasure to share with all of you guys what I know about languages and linguistics in general.