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Watch

Q From Fred Roth: 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 was tempted to give up on the question by saying that we call them watches because forks was already in use, but that lacked the intellectual satisfaction I have come to enjoy from your columns.

A The watches of the night is pretty much bang on as an answer.

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 summarised 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 Labour’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.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 7 Apr. 2007

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 7 April 2007.