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.
In ancient Greece, it was called a horologion. In ancient Rome, horologium. Both are a long cry from the simple, single-syllable word we use today: clock. Though clock does come to English from Latin, it isn’t related to these old words for a timepiece (unlike our word hour). And clock wasn’t a common name in English until the 14th century.
When people thought of mechanical timekeeping devices in those pre-literate days, the first thought often wasn’t of a round face with different-sized arms to indicate the time, but of the bell that rang the hour (and in some cases the quarter-hours as well). In Medieval Latin, “bell” was clocca, a word that dates back not to ancient Rome but only to the 7th century. Clocca was probably adopted into Church Latin from Celtic (“bell” in Old Irish was clocc) via Irish missionaries.
Clocca became the Middle Dutch klocke, and that’s probably the route it took into English. In its earliest sense, a clock was the bell that tolled the hour, but then it evolved to refer to the ringing of that bell and eventually to the device itself that kept the time.
If you’ve ever taken a hit to the noggin, you might say that you got “clocked in the head” or that you “got your bell rung” — two idioms that not only mean the same thing but are etymologically related.
But clocca didn’t sneak into English only through Dutch, or only through horology (clock-making). In France, the Medieval Latin word for “bell” became both cloche and, in one Old French dialect, cloke or cloque. These words both found their way into fashion as the names of bell-shaped garments. The former first became the name of a bell-shaped jar and then, by the beginning of the 20th century, the bell-shaped cloche hat that was popular among women during the Roaring Twenties. The latter became (in the late 13th century) the English word cloak, the sleeveless traveler’s cape that, when worn, takes on a somewhat bell-shaped form.
Featured image: Masson / Shutterstock
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