The Seconds of a Minute

I thought I’d take a break today from philosophy and politics to write about the thing I’m actually supposed to know something about: classical philology. I’m supposed to know Ancient Greek and Latin pretty well, given that I have a PhD in Classics and have been teaching one or another of these languages for ten years. As it happens, my Latin has always lagged far behind my Greek, largely because I’ve always been more interested in Greek philosophy and literature, and so have spent more time reading Greek. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that even after all this time, I still find myself learning things that, in hindsight, seem really obvious and make me wonder how I could possibly have failed to know this until now.

Today’s embarrassingly belated discovery: the origin of our English terms ‘minute’ and ‘second.’

On a superficial level, the origin of these terms is clear enough to anybody who has studied some Latin: ‘minute’ comes from the verb minuo, ‘to make less,’ via the participle minutus, ‘lessened,’ and ‘second’ comes from the verb sequor, ‘to follow,’ via the participle secundus, ‘following.’ But how on earth do words meaning ‘lessened’ and ‘following’ come to serve as measures of time? This is not so obvious. But there’s an answer.

Hora is Latin for ‘hour,’ happily enough. It turns out that Latin speakers initially described (roughly) what we think of as a minute with the term hora minuta, ‘a diminished hour.’ Secundus meaning ‘following’ is naturally extended in many contexts to mean something like ‘the next one,’ and hence ‘second’ in the ordinal sense of ‘first, second, third.’ Hence hora minuta secunda meant ‘an hour diminished a second time,’ i.e, a minute divided in a way analogous to the division of the hour into minutes. Hora minuta is then shortened to minuta and hora minuta secunda to secunda, and from there we get our ‘minute’ and ‘second.’

Or so, at least, I am informed by an old second year Latin textbook that I bought in a used bookstore somewhere several years back. From what I can tell, the terms appear to have been coined in Medieval Latin, and hence not used by the ancient Romans. The Online Etymology Dictionary has ‘minute’ attested in English only as late as the 14th century, though derived from Old French usage in the 13th or perhaps from what it vaguely calls “Medieval Latin.” The terms are used in what appears to be our sense in the 12th century by Roger Bacon in his Opus Maius, but I haven’t been able to trace them back further. The Wikipedia entry for Ancient Roman Units of Measurement claims that ancient astrology used the term minuta for 1/60th of a day and secunda for 1/3600th of a day — and hence not in our sense of ‘minute’ and ‘hour,’ but in a manner that would likely have influenced the development of the terms in our sense — but it cites no source for this claim, and, well, I’m not well read in ancient astrology, so I’ve no idea whether it’s true.

So it remains a mystery to me just when these terms originated, but the New Second Latin Book from 1936 seems right about how they originated. This knowledge won’t help you keep time, but reading this has just allowed you to kill some.

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