Ask Mr. Tom #3: What Does the Apostrophe Stand for in “Nine O’clock?”
An excellent question, if Mr. Tom does say so himself. Right away, we can rule out some obvious clunkers such as “b” or “17” or “$.” Still, that enigmatic mark must stand for something if it is to earn its keep. Here, in all its ancient glory, is the hot poop. It stands for the letter x. Please bear with Mr. Tom. He will wriggle his way out of this one somehow.
It was during the Dark Ages, when sundials perforce were of little use, that the term came about. Back then, one of the favorite pastimes of the English peasantry, along with bear-baiting and turtle-taunting, was the oxen race. Fortunes as great as six shillings were won or lost at the tread of a hoof. The way this event worked, a number of the beasts were corralled into a more-or-less tight clump and were then expected to race to a finish line, some 100 yards distant. What made the contest challenging, was that the spectators were not allowed to spur on or touch the animals in any way. Nor were they permitted to shout directions to the racers, gesticulate or make loud noises in their presence. As a matter of fact, it is from this collective crowd reticence that we get the calm and sedate behavior one always sees of the part of British soccer fans. All these ancient people could do to get the oxen meandering toward the finish line, was to reason with them, and in Latin, yet. As you can guess, it took quite a while for the winning ox to cross the line.
Inasmuch as some people wished to wager, not on which ox would win, but the winning entry’s time, it became desirable to keep track of how long the trip took. As mentioned, the sundials were of little help, and asking the official timekeeper to keep track by counting “one thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three,” had its limitations, the chief one being that few people could even count up to one thousand. Thus, an excellent wagering opportunity had to go begging. That is, until one bright Jack (not his real name) of-all-trades invented a timing mechanism Thanks to this device, which featured two tiny arrows pointing to the hours and minutes, arrayed in a circle, and powered by a trapped, frantic cuckoo, the people were able to find a new and exciting way to squander their money.
It was only after a number of years that some wise soul discovered the instrument could be used to mark time in almost any context you could think of. People in the know then began announcing, “It is nine hours, by the oxclock.” That expression was particularly piquant during the two times in the day when it actually was 9:00.
In about that same era, the young folks had started a fad by painting messages to one another on a smooth stone, then chucking the rock at the recipient’s head—a process known as “vexting,” because those who got the messages, sometimes quite painfully, became sorely perturbed. Because of the limited space available on any given rock, the youngsters took to writing their messages in an abbreviated, but very hip code. Thus did “nine hours by the oxclock” become the “nine o’clock” we know and love today.
I suppose I should note there is a contrary opinion, among people who have an almost fanatical obsession with veracity that the expression “nine o’clock” is actually short for “nine of the clock.” Make of it what you will.
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