We learn to tell the time at an early age, but never stop to think about how time was originally measured or to consider the origins of what we are saying. One of the oldest human inventions, the clock has come to shape daily life as we know it, with the wrist watch later following in its footsteps, and quite frankly we would be lost without them.
When you stop to think about it, o’clock isn’t a turn of phrase which is commonly used in the English language today, so where exactly has it stemmed from?
We take a look at why we have come to express time as “o’clock”.
O’clock is short for “of the clock”
The use of this expression originated from as early as the late 14th century Chaucer times explaining the use of old English, but this does not provide reasoning into the meaning of the phrase.
When clocks were being invented, various other methods of time telling existed such as sundials, meaning there were varying levels of accuracy. In order to distinguish that time was being referenced in keeping with the clock rather than a different time telling method, for example one would say “it is six of the clock”.
Simply a contraction of “of the clock”, o’clock was quickly shortened around the 16th or 17th centuries, and today some even drop the o’clock part altogether.
What is the meaning of the word clock?
Interestingly, the word clock doesn’t actually derive from a direct correlation with time. If we look further into history then the picture becomes clearer.
The word clock comes from the Latin word clocca, meaning bell, with close relations of the word still being used in languages such as French. Some even say the word ultimately derived from the Irish word cloc which was adapted by the Romans. Before the presence of clocks, church bells were responsible for time telling, ringing to indicate the time. At this time, the English language was already using the word bell, so clock would only have been used in reference to the church bells which indicated the time, and not bells in their entirety. When clocks were introduced into the mainstream the word was widely adopted.
O’clock refers to the exact hour only
Another thing you’ve probably never thought of as it is deemed common sense; something is only “of the clock” if it is pointing at the exact hour. Anything in-between the hour isn’t really anything “of the clock” but a deviation from the exact hour, represented by the number of minutes past the hour.
With the advent of digital watches and a reliance on smartphone for the time, this terminology is becoming less literal, but it is likely it’ll still be around for many years to come. After all, we still use the phrase “time is running out”, even though hourglasses are very rarely used these days.