Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Language of Confusion: A Small Point

Okay, enough blathering on sex and violence in media. I could go on for days about it but have a feeling my friend count would drop to those who have forgotten they have Google accounts.

Today, I'm going back to the origins of this whole series, when I commented about the way we can pronounce two words that are spelled the same in two completely different ways. This time, it’s minute and minute. The first one is a tiny point, the second a tiny point in time. But they are pronounced differently (my-noote and min-utt).

Minute—one sixtieth of an hour minute—comes from Old French minut, which in turn comes from Medieval Latin (eighth to sixteenth century written Latin) minuta. According to the Online Etymology dictionary, it means “a short note,” although other sources refer to it as “to grow smaller.” Minuta is a feminized word from the Latin (as in, the language used before the fourth century) minutus, which appropriately enough means small.

Very appropriately if you look at the other minute. It first showed up in the early fifteenth century, decades after the time minute’s arrival in the late fourteenth century. The word for small also came from the Latin minutus, the past participle of minuere—lessen.

Although in English, the time minute came first, that does not seem to be the case for the Classical Latin version. If you go way back to the Romans, who followed the Babylonian base 60 divisions. They called one sixtieth part pars minuta prima (the first small part) and one sixtieth of that pars minuta secunda (the second small part). So a little bonus etymology for you: why we call one sixtieth of a minute a “second.”

Thanks to the Online Etymology Dictionary (big surprise).
Also thanks to:

How Many? A Dictionary of Units of Measurement.” by Russ Rowlett and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


  1. I love how you keep my inner nerd happy. Okay, my nerd isn't so "inner", that much. Also, kudos for using Notre Dame. :)

  2. LOL...finding out about that bonus was sweet, thanks for sharing this.

  3. I think you'd be an interesting person to sit down with and have a conversation.

    I posted the award you gave me back in Jan. today. I also gave you an award. You get to pick which one you want or you can grab them all.
    N. R. Williams, fantasy author

  4. Interesting stuff. I always wonder who first thought of naming situations/things. Pretty cool to see how far it goes back and how much we've skewed it.

    Makes me think of Back to the Future where Marty keeps using the word heavy in the past and it keeps confusing Doc. "Is there a problem with the gravitational pull in the future?"

  5. I always love to learn about words and wonder more now about origin when my son asks me why we use the words we do.


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