WNW: Why "Second"?
Last night I had this thought that I should write up my Word Nerd Wednesday post then just in case I didn't have time for it today. I didn't. I should have. But it's still Wednesday, right?
Some time ago, a writer friend from the LDStorymakers e-mail list asked a question that made me start digging in my happy Oxford English Dictionary on CD (again, I say it's one of the best birthday presents I've ever gotten!).
For those who aren't familiar with the OED, it is the ultimate English-language dictionary. In printed form, it takes up over two dozen volumes unless you get the condensed version that has four pages printed on one. (They send along a magnifying glass so you can read it. Not kidding.)
Among other things, the OED cites the earliest known printed instance of a word, so it's particularly useful for writers like me who need to know if a historical character can eat a "cookie" in 1889 or whatever.
It also has a fun word-of-the day feature. (Today's: rhodochrome.)
I don't recall who asked the question, but I do remember that it took me severalsearches and reading a bunch of printed examples of the words and other stuff onscreen to sleuth out the answer.
The question: Why does the word second mean both "the one after first" as well as a unit of time?
Disclaimer: I'm not a linguist, and I'm not a etymology expert. This is just what I've gathered from my amateur digging.
From what I found (and like I said, it took a lot of back and forthing, cross-checking and reading lots of definitions and examples), it looks like when dividing up the hour, they first used the term minute, meaning both a small, trifling size as well as the first of something.
So the first break-up of the hour is the first or minute one.
And the second section of time that breaks up minutes is the second one, or second.
Hence, minutes and seconds. Isn't that cool?
A great book about the creation of the OED is called The Professor and the Madman. It's absolutely fascinating, not only for word nerds like me, but for people who enjoy intrigue.
(Like how the OED couldn't have been possible without an insane, convicted murderer secretly helping . . .)
Next Word Nerd Wednesday: Blasting the Ellis Island myth
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