Contrarian that I am, in some early articles in this column I looked at words involving contra/counter. I mentioned that in sports a contrarreloj is ‘a time trial,’ because an athlete is racing, as English also phrases it, ‘against the clock.’ I think it’s high time to look at the origins of reloj ‘clock, watch’ itself, one of the rare Spanish words ending in j. The unusual phonology is explained by the fact that Spanish borrowed reloj from Old Catalan relotge, a shortened version of the orollotge that had developed from Latin horologium. Lewis and Short’s A Latin Dictionary of 1879 translates horologium into English as ‘a clock, horologe, either a sundial or a waterclock.’ Most English speakers won’t be familiar with the word horologe, so here are a couple of definitions. In 1828 Noah Webster had this: ‘An instrument that indicates the hour of the day. But chronometer is now generally used.’ In contrast, the 1913 Webster’s Dictionary defined horologe this way: ‘A servant who called out the hours. [Obs.] 2. An instrument indicating the time of day; a timepiece of any kind; a watch, clock, or dial.’

Shakespeare had Iago use the word in the second sense in Act II of Othello:

He’ll watch the horologe a double set
If drink rock not his cradle.

(That’s a fancy way of saying that he’d keep watch, i.e. stay awake, for the length of two shifts if he didn’t drink himself to sleep first.)

English took horologe from French, which of course acquired the word from Latin horologium, but it was originally a Greek compound, horologion. We recognize the first component as the ancestor of hora/hour; the second component is from Greek legein ‘to say,’ so a horologion was etymologically ‘a device that tells the hours.’

A 1986 article in the series The Straight Dope included the following sentence in response to a query about why clocks that use Roman numerals have IIII rather than IV for ‘four’: “It’s possible, in other words, that old-time clock makers used IIII because it was considered perfectly proper usage for all purposes, horological or otherwise, at the time.” From the context, and from the information above, we can understand that the adjective horological means ‘pertaining to timepieces.’ Although Portuguese and Catalan have the equivalent adjective horológico, Spanish seems not to. But the English abstract noun horology does have its counterpart in Spanish horología, which the Free Dictionary defines as ‘Ciencia de la medición del tiempo y de los principios en que se funda la construcción de los cronómetros.’

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: (a)hora « Spanish-English Word Connections
  2. Trackback: horario « Spanish-English Word Connections

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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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