Clock, 12:00, noon, retroThe biggest surprises tend to hide in plain sight. We’ve found this to be true with the origins of words like hello (check it out), and especially the somewhat naughty roots of Miss (read about that here.) With noon, we’ve uncovered a remarkable fact that will change how you think of 12:00.

First, some essential background. Clocks and watches are relatively new inventions. Though some timekeeping devices, like sundials and water clocks, have been used for thousands of years, everyday people did not tell time all that often. (The mechanical clock as we know it was invented in the 1200s and was more fully developed in the 1500s.)

In the Roman Empire about 2,000 years ago, the town bell told time for everyone in earshot, but the hours of the day were counted differently than today. In Greek, hour referred to any particular part of the day. In Latin, it came to mean “one twelfth of the day.” There were two cycles of twelve, as there are today, but rather than numbering the hours from midnight, like we do, the hours were numbered from the beginning of daylight. (Other languages, like Swahili, also number the hours in this fashion.)

The twelve-hour day was then divided into four periods of three hours each. The town bell rang at four intervals during the day to signal the time to all who could hear. The first hour, called Prime, rang at 6:00 a.m.; hour three (Terce) rang at 9:00 a.m.; hour six (Sext) rang at 12:00 p.m.; and hour nine (None) rang at 3:00 p.m. The early Catholic Church adopted these daily patterns in their rituals, and monks recited prayers at the canonical hours of terce, sext and none every day.

What does this have to do with “noon”? Well, the word for the ninth hour, specifically the ninth hour of daylight, so 3:00, became “non” in Old English. As church traditions changed, the canonical hours of “non” began to happen earlier, closer to 12:00 p.m. We still don’t know if the time of the midday meal shifted from 3:00 to 12:00 or whether the time of Church prayers shifted, or both, but by the early 1200s, “noon” came to mean midday. In the 1300s, the earliest mechanical clocks showed a 24-hour dial, but by the 1500s, the 12-hour dial, starting at midnight, became standard. (The word afternoon came into common usage around this time as well.)

The nomenclature around time telling has a rich and divergent history. The terms watch, clock, day, time, calendar, years, morning, evening, even a.m. and p.m. each have surprisingly distinct etymologies. Time seems to be one realm where the disparate roots of the English language (Greek, Celtic, Old English and others) fuse with the various social influences on the language (the Catholic Church, political conquests, and foreign invasions). Stay tuned for more explorations of the words of our days.

What about the months of the year? Learn about the history of September here.

What do you think of the changes of the word “noon”?


  1. Ray (Raymond) -  March 21, 2014 - 8:58 am

    [2014] I’ve returned momentarily to correct an overstatement in the article–that, “for thousands of years, everyday people did not tell time all that often.”

    This is probably not-true-at-all and probably leads to-or-from the mistakes of assuming ancient and archaic peoples were less intelligent when in fact they were more-probably more-easy-going about life in general ‘eat, drink, merry’ (cf advice given to Gilgamesh when he lamented his friend Enkidu’s demise).

    The pièce-de-résistance is the incorrect interpretation on a story of Egyptian Seth vs. Horus holding their breath under the water for three months like the hippopotamus: The correct interpretation is three-long-minutes which is nice especially because Seth was giving Horus requisite military training…

    The explanation is that their long-minute was the moon observed passing a line across the sky–about 2.2 minutes, so ‘three’ was 6.6 minutes… But… whether the derivation can be further deriven (sic) back to ‘moon’ vs. ‘min’ which was an Egyptian word for ‘seed’ whence the moon was a seed of the sun, is left as an imagined linguistic exercise then or since-then…

    The import of this reference is that the story was probably commonly known and therefor the common people must have commonly known what a long-minute was and how to measure it–on necessary occasions. The measurement can be safest done by observing a pinhole projection of the sun crossing a line on the ground–the sun being almost exactly the size of the moon (whence solar eclipses by the moon are so brief),–and, again, their common knowledge related the sun and moon as ‘brothers’… This furthermore suggests the Egyptians -their priests at least- had invented the earliest of sundials, albeit for short moments in this case….

    ‘Not to beat a dead dinosaur on Mars, from Earth…’

  2. myuuzik -  January 13, 2012 - 8:44 am

    Midnight CANNOT be the beginning of a day, can it?

    Like midnight Saturday-Sunday cannot be the end of Saturday and the beginning of Sunday. At 12 or 1 or even 3 am for that matter, we are still in Saturday.

  3. tomsboat -  January 3, 2012 - 6:32 pm

    It must took you a lot of time and energy to find these original materials, I’ve learned a lot through all your articals, I will read every one you post, thank you so much

1 2 3 4

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked (required):

Related articles

Back to Top