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

(Remember to drop by Mormon Woman to see my profile today.)


Luisa Perkins said…

I loved The Professor and the Madman. Another fun one is Reading the OED, by Ammon Shea.
Kaylynn said…
There's an Ellis Island myth. How fun!
Kristina P. said…
You always post the most interesting things.
Jordan McCollum said…
As a friend and a linguist (of sorts), I say awesome job!
L.T. Elliot said…
*delighted sigh* Oh WNW, how I love thee!

I'm determined to have an OED for myself now! Thank for for the excellent new reading ideas too!
Tristi Pinkston said…
You really do rock.
Tristi Pinkston said…
Oh, and the article about you rocked, too.
annie valentine said…
Wait a minute, was there a second reference that we could check?
Melanie J said…
I read the Profressor and the Madman, too. You're not suprised, are you?
Jo said…
Oh my. My word nerd brain is sooo happy! I love knowing about where words come from. I might have to get myself an OED. I am a long time reader of dictionaries, much to other peoples' amusement.
Yeah, I have had an inordinate love of the OED since my first semester as an English major . . . I still dream of the day when I can have the complete volumes in my own library . . . :o)
Annette Lyon said…
My dad has a condensed copy. While I love my CD version, I'd love a book one.

Some day I want to inherit it--I'll fight my siblings tooth and nail for it if I have to!
Kimberly said…
Fascinating as always!
myimaginaryblog said…
My mom has the condensed one with the magnifying glass, too. It's very cool. And I've meant to read that madman book -- maybe now that the TV shows I follow are in off-season, that would make a good start to my summer reading.
wendy said…
Who would have thunk???
Motherboard said…
I have the jumbo 2 book, need a magnifying glass to read it version of OED. Jealous?

Although I rarely comment, your WNW's are my favorite!
Chantele said…
You always have the most interesting posts!:) Thank you!
An Ordinary Mom said…
OED on CD ... this will go on my wish list.

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