In a Word: Minutes, Seconds, and the Geometry of Time

A little math, a little Latin, and now you can tell what time it is.

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Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

With the omnipresence of digital clocks these days, I sometimes worry that younger generations are missing out on the everyday geometry that is the analog clock. But the mathematics of time-telling go deeper than just the circular clock face — they’re embedded in the very words we use to track time. It all goes back to Medieval geometry.

In the 13th and 14th centuries, the greatest analytical minds Europe were making leaps and bounds in mathematics and geometry — largely because of the spread of the Arab numerical system that we use today and the study of earlier work by Eastern thinkers. One thing geometricians did was to divide the circle (and, not much later, the hour) into 60 equal parts. This division resulted in 60 sections of 6 degrees that were each called, in Medieval Latin, pars minuta prima “first small part.” This name for 1/60 of a circle (or of an hour) entered English in the late 14th century — through Old French — as the abbreviated minute.

That minuta in pars minuta prima comes from the Latin minutus, meaning “small, little” — the same root that led to the adjective minute. So, yes, the noun minute (short i and first-syllable accent) is etymologically related to the adjective minute (long i and second-syllable accent) — and closely so.

But what about that prima? Why did they call it the first small part? Because they did it again: Each 60th was again divided into 60 equal parts, each one-tenth of a degree, leading to the secunda pars minuta, the “second small part,” each representing 1/3,600 of a circle — or of an hour. Minute was already taken, so this came into English as second.

So when you’re counting your minutes and seconds — at least, when you’re doing it with an analog clock — you’re putting to use a nice bit of geometric division that dates back to Medieval times and reusing a bit of Medieval Latin to describe it.

Featured image: Shutterstock

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