The drifting etymology of ‘noon’



Monastic hours

Indo-European language family tree

Sun at noon

The meanings of words can drift over time.
As the generations pass, the speakers who were used to an earlier meaning are gone, and the younger speakers would have no memory of what words originally meant.
And one word that illustrates this very nicely is the word ‘noon’.
So noon, of course, meaning the middle of the day.
We think of it as 12 o’clock.
But this word ‘noon’ comes from the word ‘nine’.
Now, it’s not immediately clear how to connect the number nine with noon.
Now, of course, we connect it with the number 12, and that’s counting from midnight.
You start at 12 – avoiding the number zero, which the ancients tended to avoid, and so instead we’re starting with 12 – and then, you know, you count up from midnight to noon, and then you start again.
So noon is 12.
But it was popular in the ancient world to count from sunrise.
So, you know, typically 12 hours from sunrise to sunset, and then 12 hours from sunset to sunrise.
So the middle of the day would be half of 12.
It would be 6.
So noon would be six.
That would be- that would make sense.
So we think of noon as 12.
In the older system, starting from sunrise, it should be six.
But how did it get to nine?
Well, you can look at the number nine.
This number goes back all the way to Proto-Indo-European root, something like newn, meaning nine.
So it’s really quite remarkable how this particular word, it almost sounds the same as it did, even in this ancient root.
Down all the way to the root of Proto-Indo-European, through all the changes, all the different languages, still comes to us with something very similar: newn, noon, or nine, still the same.
And we see there Latin novem, Greek ennea: these are remaining very similar.
So clearly, noon is nine.
And if we call it six, then it would be sext.
So here, if we look at the hours of the day that were common in the medieval period, there were these hours for monastic services or prayers that were held regularly throughout the day.
And so they would start with prime, of course prime meaning first, for the first hour.
And then they would have the third hour.
Again, avoiding zero, because instead of going zero three six, they go one three six, prime three and six.
But then so you have your mid-morning Terce – that would be like around 9 a.m.
– for the third hour, and then sext would be noon.
So it seems to make sense that, you know, you would have a perfectly reasonable case to refer to noon as sext.
It might lead to some confusion, as the word sext has very recently become a word with a completely different meaning.
But you would have a case to make for why you are saying “Meet me at sext.” OK.
But meanings change, and logic cannot resist the change in meaning that happens.
No matter how logical it might be to call noon ‘sext’, that is not what the language does.
So here we have nones for nine.
And somehow, nones drifted, so that what used to be the ninth hour of the day, around 3 p.m., drifted to become the sixth hour of the day, or 12 p.m., or noon.
And so this seems to be very clear.
The etymology is rock solid on this.
Clearly, noon, comes from nones or nine.
This is almost certainly the case.
But when it comes to why this drift happened, how and why there was this three-hour shift in the meaning of this word, that is completely unknown.
The mystery remains, and there’s only a few theories.
So we see this possible theory: some people say unreliable timekeeping.
They just didn’t know what time it was.
They were confused.
You know, they thought it was noon, you know, they thought it was 3 p.m.
It was really 12.
So they said it was noon, and they meant 3 p.m., but it was 12 p.m., and then, you know, they just couldn’t keep track of time.
I have a hard time believing that.
They were pretty good at keeping basic time.
They didn’t have exact-to-the-second timekeeping, but certainly they knew how to count the passing of the day.
So that seems a bit of a stretch.
Seasonal elasticity of the hours: well, it’s certainly true that the whole idea of what time, you know, how many hours past sunrise does it take for you to get to noon?
That’s certainly going to be changing.
In the midsummer in the far north, it may be around noon by the time you’re nine hours into your day, for very far north.
And if you’re in the middle of winter, for most of Europe, it would already be sunset nine hours in.
But in the older times, it was common to count hours according to the division of the day, so that there would always be 12 hours from sunrise to sunset, and 12 hours from sunset to sunrise – that was a common system – so that the hours would actually stretch and squeeze in the different systems.
But certainly, it’s reasonable to think that there might be some confusion brought in, and they had trouble finding noon.
Yeah, but still I see that kind of similar to this first theory, that it just seems to suggest they didn’t know how to keep track of time.
It seems hard to believe Now here’s a fun theory, that it was common in many of these rules and traditions that you had to fast until noon.
You had to fast until the hour of noon.
So, you know, if you have to wait until 3 p.m.
to have your meal, certainly is an incentive for 3 p.m.
to hurry up.
And so you might be thinking, “Ah, you know, I’m pretty sure it’s noon by now.
I’m pretty sure.
I know it seems a little bit early, but yeah, I think we can just call this noon.” OK.
And you can just imagine that process sort of creeping up, so that, you know, eventually you’d be three hours earlier, and you’re like “Yep.
I’m sure it’s noon right now.
Ready to eat.” And here’s another possibility, was that it was the idea that at some point, it was common to have your – you know, for ordinary people, not just monasteries – but it was common to have your midday meal around 3 p.m.
Now, I have no idea if this is true.
But if this is true, this would make a plausible explanation, that it was common to eat your meal around 3 p.m., the hour of nones or noon.
And so the time became associated with the meal.
You just say OK, this is noon.
This is the meal.
But then, as that meal tended to be eaten earlier, and tended to creep towards noon, the name ‘noon’ also crept up, in association with that meal.
So that’s also plausible, but it does depend on whether it’s actually true that there is this mealtime shift, which I would need to see some evidence of that.
So none of these theories are really very convincing.
But somehow, there was a drift, and the drift seems to have been complete by the middle of the Middle Ages.
And as a fun little footnote to this, there was a time, from the 17th to the 19th century, where noon could be used to refer to midnight.
The noon of the night.
I’m not sure if that sounds poetic or silly, which one is stronger for that.
But these are the kinds of things that you can open up.
When you step into the etymology of any word, it opens up a whole world of history and mystery.

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