October 29, 2013

Words of the Month - Time for Etymology

        Time may march on inexorably, but the words we use to talk about it can be surprisingly unsteady.  Here’s a little background on a few of our more interesting words for time.

hour - The Proto-Indo-European root for year came down through the Germanic branch of the family to become our word year.  But in the Greek to Latin to French branch it shifted meaning and ultimately became our word hour.  Slight difference!  An hour was a variable period of time for centuries, and even when it was first applied to the twelfth part of a day (sunrise to sunset), it wasn’t a fixed amount of time, because the amount of daylight sunrise to sunset wasn’t a fixed amount of time.  Fixed-length hours were invented in the fourth century, but right up until the sixteenth century people sometimes referred to “temporary hours,” meaning the division of the day that changed with the seasons.

morning - Morning got its -ing from hanging around too much with evening.  The original word was simply morn, which was a contraction of Middle English morwen.  Also, it originally referred more specifically to dawn, whereas now it can stretch from midnight to noon.

noon - Noon used to come at about 3pm, and derives from Latin for the number nine.  In Old English non meant “the ninth hour,” and the ninth canonical hour fell at 3:00 in the afternoon.  (Except it wasn’t after noon then!)  The shift in meaning happened over the twelfth to fourteenth centuries when the time of church prayers shifted, and/or the time of the midday meal shifted.

October - October is another word that came loose from its etymological moorings.  As most people recognize, its Latin root means the number eight.  That’s because it was the eighth month in the old Roman calendar, which began in March.  (You can still see the seven in September, the nine in November, and the ten in December, too.)  The switch to the Julian calendar in 46-5BCE moved the start of the new year back two months, leaving the month names looking a little silly.

season - Originally meaning “the act of sowing,” the word shifted to name the time of sowing, i.e. spring, and then eventually spread to the other periods of the year.

        Where I am we’ll be resetting our clocks to “fall back” this coming Sunday, and as the time changes, I’ll be thinking about how our language does, too.

[Pictures: Astronomical clock in Uppsala Cathedral, wood block print from History of the Nordic Peoples by Olaus Magnus, 1555 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
October, woodcut pictures and metalcut text (?) by Jean Perreal, from a Book of Hours by the printer Simon Vostre, 1513 (Image from Griffon’s).]

This weekend I'll be at Roslindale Open Studios, the biggest show I do each year.  Come out and see a huge variety of art!

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