A new day, a new thing

My goal to learn something new every day

Day 74: O’clock

Image courtesy of Ömer Ünlü on Flickr

Image courtesy of Ömer Ünlü on Flickr

I wrote about time when I learned about military time on Day 54. Today is another time-related post, but this time about the phrase o’clock. It’s a phrase many people probably use on a daily basis, and one that many of my learners always seem to know. But when you stop and think about it, it’s quite an interesting phrase. It’s not too common for a phrase to include punctuation as standard. So why do we have it?

The Online Etymology Dictionary says this:

c.1720, abbreviation of of the clock (1640s), from Middle English of the clokke (late 14c.).

So when we’re saying it’s six o’clock, we really mean it’s six of the clock. But why ‘of the clock’? While clocks are one of the oldest inventions, they of course haven’t been around for ever, and before mechanical time-telling instruments, people obviously needed some way to tell the time. The Moon and the Sun were used by cultures around the world for centuries, but it wasn’t easy for people to tell the time precisely, so other instruments were invented.

When clocks first came about, people needed a way to differentiate between the time as told by a clock and the time from, say, the Sun, which varied. To do this, they could say of the clock when reading from a clock. Over time, as clocks became more and more prevalent, and people began using the sun less and clocks more, the phrase became less important, hence the abbreviation.

Today, the phrase still remains, but of course is not strictly necessary.

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This entry was posted on March 15, 2015 by in Language and tagged , .

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