verb • French
to stay up late; to watch over.
Waiting up until midnight to welcome in the new year has become something of a tradition for me. There’s something distinctly special about whiling away the last few hours of the old year with a small group of friends, picking at snacks and games to keep everyone awake until the ball drops in the tiny version of Times Square on the TV or laptop screen. (It’s a party for the ferociously introverted.) The first few moments of 2019 succeeded in capturing that something special, and amid all the thoughts and grand plans of Things I was finally going to Do this year (this blog among them), I couldn’t help but think of veiller. I learned the word in passing during my AP French class in high school, but it immediately stuck with me as having the power to convey something quite evocative. A single word that means “to stay up late” is already pretty nifty, but there’s more to veiller than that. There’s a sense of anticipation baked into the word, perhaps a sense of duty: this is staying up late with purpose.
Staying awake long into the night is a universally relatable thing. Even if you’re not a night owl, you’ve done it at least a few times, and you probably have stories about the times you did. Some of life’s most interesting moments seem to happen when we’re too tired to stop them. College is a breeding ground for nighttime (mis)adventures: one highlight of my experience there involved working until 5 in the morning to finish a final report, sleeping for two hours, and somehow making it on time to my 8:30 class that same morning, teetering on the edge of some state of delirious enlightenment. But to describe that episode with veiller doesn’t feel quite right; no, the word hints at something more intimate. Its other meanings imply a greater interest outside your own: when used with an object, it becomes “to make sure of” or “to take care of”; without an object, it even has a second meaning, “to watch over”, with the connotation of looking after a sick person. To stay up late because you’re watching over something or someone — now that’s a great word. And it’s precisely accurate in describing the feeling I always get while staying up on New Year’s Eve.
Granted, the word’s typical usage may not rely on both meanings at once — even in English we have plenty of words with multiple meanings, and they tend to stick with one or the other depending on what the context dictates — but just the fact that the two ideas coexist within the same little package is enough to inspire a particular feeling. Anticipation and a hint of uncertainty, knowing the ball will drop and the new year will arrive but feeling compelled to stay awake and make sure, reflecting on where the old year has taken us and wondering where the new one will: that’s what veiller means to me. It’s the suggestion of stories unfolding in the quiet stillness between the night and the morning, not quite knowing what the outcome is going to be. And when midnight comes, it’s being content just to stay and wait a little longer, the past out of sight and the future on the horizon, the present fleeting but at that moment seeming infinite.