The Grammarphobia Blog

Time piece

Q: What’s the relation between “second,” the adjective, and “second,” the unit of time? And how about the verb “to second”? And what’s the relation between the adjective “minute” and the unit of time? And while you’re at it, how about all those other units of time: “hour,” “day,” “year,” “week,” “month”?

A: Whew! That’s a tall order. But I have a break in editing proofs for a new book, Origins of the Specious, which is coming out in May. So, here goes.

Let’s take these words one at a time. (I’ll put in parentheses the year of each one’s first appearance in English, according to either the Oxford English Dictionary or the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.)

(1) “Second.” The adjective (1297) came before the noun meaning a snippet of time. It’s the ordinal version of the cardinal number “two,” and comes from the Latin secundus, which means “following” or “next” (the root is sequi, “to follow”).

To understand the nouns “second” and “minute,” it’s helpful to know the system of sexagesimal fractions (that is, fractions based on 60). Babylonian astronomers and mathematicians invented the system for measuring angles, and it was later adopted by Greek- and Latin-speaking scholars. In angular measurement, a circle has 360 degrees; each degree has 60 minutes, and each minute has 60 seconds.

Originally, the noun “second” was short for the Latin secunda minuta, meaning “second [or next] small part,” since it is the second operation in sexagesimal division (first come minutes, then seconds). So you can see the relationship between the adjective and the noun.

The noun was originally (1360) an angular measurement, and it was used in geometry, astronomy, geography, and so on. It designated 1/3600th of a degree and 1/60th of an angular minute. The noun for the unit of time came later (1588), meaning 1/3600th of an hour and 1/60th of a temporal minute.

Meanwhile, the verb “second,” meaning to support or back up or assist another person (1586), is from the same Latin source. The sense of supporting a proposition or a speaker in a debate or meeting was first used by Francis Bacon in one of his essays (1597): “It is a good precept generally in seconding another: yet to adde somewhat of ones owne.”

(2) “Minute.” Here the noun came first, and the ultimate source is the classical Latin minutus, meaning small. In medieval Latin, minuta (short for the phrase pars minuta prima, or “first small part”) meant the 60th part of a degree or an hour. In English, the noun for a 60th part of a degree (1392) is about as old as the noun for a 60th part of an hour (1393).

So etymologically, the “minute” is the first small part of a sexagesimal division, and the “second” is the next small part.

If this all looks pretty tidy so far, here’s a fly in the ointment. As the OED points out, “in Old English contexts, minutum usually meant one-tenth of an hour. … When Honorius Augustodunensis divided the hour into sixtieths in De Imagine mundi (early 12th cent.), he called the sixtieths ostenta. These sixtieths were sometimes called minuta by the end of the 12th cent. (e.g., in the chronicle of Robertus de Monte), although the word continued to be used of tenths of an hour at least into the 13th cent.”

Meanwhile, the adjective “minute” (pronounced my-NOOT), meaning lesser or small (1472), has the same source as the noun, the Latin minutus.

(3) “Hour.” This word (1250), meaning 60 temporal minutes, ultimately comes from hora, which means season, time of day, or hour in both Latin and Greek. Its ultimate ancestor may be ancient Indo-European (see “year,” below). The “h” has always been silent in English as well as the Romance languages that inherited the word.

(4) “Day.” No, this isn’t related to the Latin dies, which also means “day.” It’s Germanic. The original daeg in Old English was first recorded in Beowulf (725). Its ultimate source is probably the Proto-Germanic dagaz and the earlier Indo-European base agh or ogh.

(5) “Week.” This word, first recorded (878) in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles and meaning a cycle of seven days, is also Germanic. It probably has its origins in the Indo-European root wig-, meaning bend or turn. Similar words in other old Germanic languages conveyed the meanings of change, order, movement, turning, and succession. The word went through a variety of spellings before arriving at “week” in the mid-1500s.

(6) “Month.” This developed from the Old English monath (750), which has been traced to the Proto-Germanic maenoth and the Indo-European menot, for moon. In English, monath became “moneth” then “monthe” then “month” (though there were many, many variations along the way, including “moonth”). The period was originally named because it represented the time needed for the moon to complete a cycle of its phases.

(7) “Year.” This word developed from the Old English gear (first recorded in the early 10th century). It has echoes in the Proto-Germanic jaeran, but it has cousins that are non-Germanic as well: the Greek horos (year), the Greek and Latin hora (season, time of day, hour), and the Latin horno (this year). All may come from the ancient Indo-European root yer, which is thought to have meant “that which makes [a complete cycle],” according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots. The Old English word originally represented “the time occupied by the sun in its apparent passage through the signs of the zodiac,” according to the OED.

That’s it for now. I’ve run out of time.

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