Why did “noon” used to mean 3:00?

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”?

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