Sunday, November 29, 2009

100th Post - Just Watch This!

I was thinking about my wristwatch the other evening and started wondering why we call small timepieces watches. Is it because we look at them to tell the time, or were they intended to tell the watches of the night?

I found that a watch related to people before it became a mechanical device. The job of the watch was — clearly enough — to watch, to stay alert in order to to keep guard and maintain order. It turned up especially in the phrase watch and ward, as a legal term that summarized the duties of the watchmen — to keep watch and ward off trouble. Sailors’ watches come from the same idea.

Watch began to be applied to a mechanical device in the fifteenth century, to start with to a form of clock-based alarm, either to wake the watchmen for their hours of duty or to mark the passage of the hours of a watch.

By the latter part of the following century it had started to mean what we would now call a clock-face or dial (early mechanical clocks often lacked both a dial and hands, the time being told by bells, which explains the derivation of clock from the French cloche, a bell; the first clock with a minute hand is from as late as 1475, which shows you how hard it was to make these early clocks keep reasonable time).

The first time watch is applied to a complete timekeeper, not just to an alarm bell, is in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labor’s Lost of 1588. Watches steadily became smaller in size down the centuries until they could be fitted into a pocket.

But it took until the end of the nineteenth century for them to be made small enough that they could be worn on the wrist and for the term wrist watch to be created as a term for them. At first they were a purely female accessory. A report in a Rhode Island paper in May 1888 remarked “I was not surprised to see that nearly all the fair sex were wearing the wrist watches which are now so entirely the fashion in London, but which I believe are very little worn as yet in America.” They also became known as wristlet watches from about 1910. Men didn’t wear them much until the 1920s, the associations of effeminacy only being dispelled as a result of soldiers and airmen finding them to be useful during the First World War.

All of this got me thinking about retronyms - terms renamed after something similar but newer has come into being. Perhaps you have never given a thought to how many words came to need modifiers that they never needed in the past. For example -

Acoustic guitar

Before the invention of the solid-body electric guitar, all guitars amplified the sound of a plucked string with a resonating hollow body.

AM radio

Before the introduction of broadcast FM radio, the AM broadcast band radio was simply as radio or wireless in the UK.

Analog watch

Before the advent of the digital watch, all watches had faces and hands. After the advent of the digital watch, watches with faces and hands became known as analog watches.

Cold water faucet/tap

Before the invention of the water heater, there was only the single faucet/tap at each sink.

Conventional oven

Before the development of the microwave oven, the convection oven and the toaster oven this term was not used. Now it is commonly found in cooking instructions for prepared foods.

Film camera

As opposed to digital camera. Oh how I miss the film camera!

Manual transmission (also standard transmission)

Automotive transmissions were all manual, of course, before the invention of the automatic transmission.

Prop plane

As jet aircraft became the primary people movers of the airways, the older propeller-based technology received this occasional shorthand nickname to distinguish it.

Can you think of more? Email me. As opposed to snail mail, of course!

1 comment:

  1. Stan, Thankfully books are just books
    despite the advent of audio ones,
    which are awfully good, and tempting.
    Now there's the Amazon Kindle, which
    will download the NY Times at a much
    reduced subscription price and even
    read it to you through the AUX function
    of your car's audio or your MP3 while
    you're out hiking.

    Congrats on 100 Word Farm posts
    It's fun seeing them word their way
    through the compost of reading matter
    and coffee grounds.

    Michael Dennis Mooney, Albany at: