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What Does "Even Stevens" Mean?

A. Leverkuhn
A. Leverkuhn

The English idiomatic phrase “even stevens” means that two or more parties are “even,” or that resources are fairly divided among them. Another similar meaning is that all contractual obligations have been satisfied and are approved by each party. This colloquial phrase is a more colorful way to talk about whether a deal or scenario is fair.

“Even stevens” is a phrase of unclear origins. Most word historians would agree that the phrase was used throughout the twentieth century. In many English speaking societies, this phrase is more of a verbal one than one to be used in writing. Other more technical phrases prevail on the written page, for example, “fair and appropriate” or “in correct proportion.”

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

Some contend that the phrase “even stevens” became much more popular in the 1960s after a New Zealand race horse of the same name won several prominent races. The phrase has also been traced back to its use in various books and periodicals. It’s familiar to many English speakers, though they may not use it themselves. Some also change it to exclude the plural, i.e. “even steven.”

Idiomatically, the phrase “even stevens” is an example of the use of rhyme in colloquial speech. The effect of rhyming is something that is of interest to linguists. It seems that, although different people perceive rhyming slang differently, the general effect is to emphasize the meaning, for example, where “even stevens” may more prominently bring the listener to focus on fairness than if the speaker just said “are we even?” To some speakers and listeners, the use of rhyme also lightens the communication, where “even stevens” can be a more playful description of a deal.

In addition to being a rhyming phrase, the phrase “even stevens” seems to be based on the first name “Steven,” or possibly the surname, "Stevens." Some would also call this phrase a “mnemonic” device. In a mnemonic, the sounds of words help to fix those words in the mind. This might be part of how many English speakers use the phrase “even stevens.” In terms of its actual use, the phrase is usually used in the question form; it can also be used for the affirmative, but is hardly ever used to indicate the negative.

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      Woman standing behind a stack of books