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Why a timepiece is a watch

Q: I wonder about the derivation of the word “watch” as in the timepiece on my wrist. Does it come from looking at (i.e., watching) the watch?

A: When the noun “watch” showed up in Anglo-Saxon times (spelled wæcce or wæccan in Old English), it referred to wakefulness, especially keeping awake for guarding or observing. That sense of wakefulness probably led to the use of “watch” for a timepiece.

As John Ayto explains in his Dictionary of Word Origins, “The sort of watch that tells the time is probably so called not because you look at it to see what time it is, but because originally it woke you up.”

Ayto adds that the “earliest records of the noun’s application to a timepiece (in the 15th century) refer to an ‘alarm clock’; it was not used for what we would today recognize as a ‘watch’ until the end of the 16th century.”

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology cites the Promptorium Parvulorum, a Middle English-Latin dictionary from around 1440, for the “alarm clock” sense.

In the Promptorium, the Middle English term for “watch” is referred to as the alarum, or alarm, on a clock: “Wecche, of a clokke.” Chambers describes the use of “wecche” here as “an alarm attached to a clock to wake up sleepers.”

The Oxford English Dictionary questions the Promptorium citation because the entry in the bilingual dictionary doesn’t include a Latin translation of the Old English. However, the OED adds that “on etymological grounds it seems likely that the sense ‘alarum’ is the oldest of the senses of this branch.”

The OED’s first unqualified example is from a 1542 issue of the Archaeological Journal: “Item oone Larum [alarm] or Watch of iron, the case being likewise iron gilt with two plumettes of led [lead weights].”

The dictionary has several citations from the late 1500s for “watch” used to mean a “small time-piece; orig. one with a spring-driven movement, and of a size to be carried in the pocket; now also frequently, a wrist-watch (spring- or battery-driven).”

The earliest example is from Plaine Perceuall the Peace-Maker of England (1590), by the Elizabethan pamphleteer Richard Harvey: “Surrender vp thy watch though it were gold.”

And here’s an example from Shakespeare’s comedy Love’s Labour’s Lost (1598): “A woman that is like a Iermane Cloake [German clock], / Still a repairing: euer out of frame, / And neuer going a right, being a Watch: / But being watcht, that it may still go right.”

We especially like this later example from an Aug. 21, 1784, letter by the lexicographer Samuel Johnson: “Dictionaries are like watches, the worst is better than none, and the best cannot be expected to go quite true.”

Returning to the earlier etymology of the noun “watch,” it originally meant the “action or a continued act of watching; a keeping awake and vigilant for the purpose of attending, guarding, observing, or the like,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s first Old English example is from King Ælfred’s translation (circa 888) of De Consolatione Philosophiæ, a sixth-century treatise by the Roman philosopher and statesman Boethius:

“Hu micele wæccan & hu micle unrotnesse se hæfð þe ðone won willan hæfð on þisse worulde” (“How great the watch and how great the grief of someone with wicked desires in this world”).

This Middle English example is from Confessio Amantis (1393), a long poem by John Gower about the confessions of an aging lover: “So mot I nedes fro hire wende / And of my wachche make an ende” (“So I must needs go from her and make an end of my watch”).

Over the next two centuries, the noun “watch” came to mean people on guard or observation, as well as their period of duty, especially at night. The term was used for watches in towns, on military posts, and aboard ships.

Here’s an example from Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth, first performed in the early 1600s: “As I did stand my watch vpon the Hill / I look’d toward Byrnane, and anon me thought / The Wood began to moue.”

And this biblical example is from the King James Version of 1611: “I will stand vpon my watch, and set mee vpon the towre, and will watch to see what he will say vnto me.”

If you’d like to read more, we published a post in 2017 about the expression “not on my watch.” We’ve borrowed some of the early etymology in that post for this one.

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