Hours, Minutes, Seconds

I had another of those putting-two-and-two-together moments today. I was trying to elicit the word second from a student. This was in the context of saying a date. This is often quite tricky for French speakers. In French you refer to a date as, for example, le vingt decembre (today’s date). If you were to literally translate this into English, it would be the twenty December, as opposed to the twentieth of December. French speakers often therefore take a while to get used to adding the the and of, and using the ordinal form of the number.

Anyway, I was trying to get a student to say the twenty-second instead of twenty-two. Knowing that he knew second, but just couldn’t think of it, I tried to jog his memory by trying to think of a second as a unit of time, because in French that word is seconde (2nd is deuxième).

Then, as always, I started thinking: we use the same word as the unit of time, and the ordinal form of the number two. What’s going on there?

I’d realised this before, of course, but I don’t think I’d ever really thought about it before. I thought that the specifity of the word, and the general relationship with the concept of time shared by both uses, meant that it must be more than a mere coincidence.

And I was right!

 The earlier use of second is as the ordinal form of the number two, i.e. what comes after first. It comes from the Latin secundus, meaning following, or next in time or order (words like sequence, sequel, and succession are unsurprisingly related).

Second came to be used to refer to the unit of time in 14th geometry terminology. It referred to the second division of an hour into smaller parts, the first of course being a minute, though at the time, a minute was known as a prime minute.

You might now be thinking that there’s some link between the unit of time minute, and the adjective minute (emphasis on the second syllable, meaning very small). And you’d also be right!

The Medieval Latin term pars minuta prima (first small part) was used by the mathematician Ptolemy to refer to one sixtieth of a circle, and later one sixtieth of an hour. This eventually led to the use of minute in English.

Since we’re referring to hours, where did the word hour come from? It’s from the Greek ora, a fairly general term which could refer to any limited period of time within a year. This word in turn comes from the Proto-Indo-European root yer-, meaning year or season.

So while second might not always be the best result, it’s certainly an interesting word!

11 thoughts on “Hours, Minutes, Seconds

  1. This is a very interesting post! I took first year French in college, and I have to say transitioning from English to French was nowhere near as difficult to understand in concept as the reverse. From what I understand, English is considered to be one of the most difficult languages in the world to learn – especially because so many words have multiple different meanings and usages, so many different slang words and phrases, etc. I’m definitely interested in reading more from your perspective! ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! I’ve definitely seen how hard English can be to learn. The basics aren’t too bad, but it’s very hard to get confident in English. There so many inconsistincies and illogical aspects: it’s very hard to understand that “get up,” “get over,” or “get sick” have nothing to do with “get,” for example!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. When I was a child, there was a cartoon series called Courageous Cat and Minute Mouse. We pronounced ‘minute’ as ‘MINit’, but after I learned the pronunciation ‘myNEWT’, I wondered whether if was meant to be that. No. Many/all episodes are available on Youtube, and Minute Mouse is definitely ‘MINit’, which doesn’t make much sense, but neither does ‘myNEWT Mouse’ because the cartoon mouse is not much smaller than the cat.

    And my-NEWT has the same derivation as MINit.

    Liked by 1 person

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