Thursday, 1 December 2016

Lingering History - Archaeology of Words

I was writing a story and had my character 'inching' toward a corner. It was a far-future story where inches were ancient history. I live in a country that's been metric for a generation and I've never heard anyone say 'centimeter-ing'. I heard a guy say he'd taken some good 'footage' when recording a video on his smartphone except there's no light sensitive reel of film in his clever piece of tech.

It's not just our language that lingers behind the technological curve. I use various pieces of software and often click on a picture of a floppy disc to save the file. Except floppy discs are 'ancient' history in computing terms. I wonder how long would the icon representing saving data will remain?

That made me wonder what more ancient things have remained with us, some of them so old we've kind of forgotten they still effect us. Sometimes it is a legacy in the language, often the legacy runs deeper, like time.

Twenty-Four Hours in a Day

This was invented by one of the earliest civilisations, the Sumerians, over 6,000 years ago. Twelve is a good number because has many factors and can be factored up and down. It was why the British used to use pounds, shillings and pence (with 240 pence in the pound and children were taught to memorise their 12 times table). Anyway back to time, 12 hours of daylight, 12 hours of night made sense to them. They preferred equal numbers of hours of darkness and light, that meant they stretched and shrank their hours with the changing seasons.

Located in what is now Iraq, the people of Sumer could get away with it, further toward the poles, where the season change meant hours of daylight would were significantly longer or shorter, it needed a bit of fixing (our Greek ancestors did that for us) and there you go.

I started with 12, but the Sumerians had a thing for the number 60, sound familiar? Yep, 60 seconds to 60 minutes, I'm sure they tried 60 hours in a day first (no evidence of that, it's just me). They did go for 360 days in the year. That's twelves and sixties. Funny how we ended up with 7 being lucky.

Next time you check the time you are looking at something that was probably decided by the Sumarian Committee for Time Standardisation and revised by the Greek Committee for Hour Fixing thousands of years ago.


While talking about time, ever wondered about 'clockwise' and why analogue clocks and watches turn in that particular direction? It wasn't a 50/50 chance where some watchmaker picked a direction and all the others went: "Woa man, that's the coolest way to turn we'll all copy that!" It is because that's the way the shadow moves on a sundial in the Western Hemisphere. Early clocks had only one hand because most clock users weren't interested in minutes and seconds and one hand was much like the single gnomon of a sundial.

Next time you look at your analogue watch you're looking at a simulated sundial marking out a time system developed by some clever Iraqi mathematicians millennia ago.

Upper Case and Lower Case

My laptop has a Caps Lock to switch between capitals and small letters. Capitals are often described as upper case and the smaller ones as lower case. Ever wondered why?

In the days before electrons were troubled to create letters on screens, or lasers cured plastic on paper, or ink was sprayed with microscopic precision, it was lumps of lead held in a frame pressing ink to leave the required mark.  Individual dies - or type - were required for each letter and punctuation mark, small letters, used more were held in open racks or cases close to the typesetter and capitals, that were less heavily used were held in cases above them. So in the lower cases were the small letters and in the upper cases the capitals.

Wedding Ring - Fourth Finger Left Hand

We humans are creative beings. Sadly we spend a lot of that creativity hating and developing ways to hurt our fellows. On the up side, we spend even more of it decorating ourselves; be it with snazzy clothes, interesting hairstyles, beards that look like semi-colons for the chin or add-ons like tattoos or rings through our noses and ears. All these have been going on since we've been around since we've painting amazing hunting scenes in caves or 'Wodder's a Jerk' with a spray can on the side of a garage.

Most of why we do these things are so ancient we've forgotten why. One I know about is wedding and engagement rings. In Western culture (I don't mean cowboys culture thought its a subset.) if you meet 'The One' and want to make it formal and engagement ring is the start followed by a wedding ring after the joining ceremony. Why is it that particular finger?

Well what is dominant in the Western culture today and pushing its way into others started off as an Ancient Egyptian tradition. Our Egyptian cousins believed there was a blood vessel that lead straight to the heart and there was been a belief that that is where emotions are seated since probably before we used to daub 'Ugh is a jerk' with mud-based paint in caves. Doing so is putting a ring around the heart.

It started with the Eyptians, was borrowed by the Ancient Romans and the rest is history, or bang up-to-date, depending what day it is.

Oh yeah, it doesn't have to involve diamonds.


This is a lazy one. The dashboard in your car holds all the dials, buttons and probably computer screens by the time this is published. That's not what it once was. It was the board on a cart or carriage that shielded the driver from being dashed with mud and dirt from the road. Think, they'll be dashboards on spacecraft in the future.

Don't worry, I'm not going to talk about why men and women's buttons are on different sides, though it's worth looking up. Let's do one more, even lazier.


'Car' is short for 'Horseless Carriage' and Iron is short for 'Smoothing Iron' and mine isn't iron. I do the ironing with an assembly of plastic, aluminium and copper. There's probably a little iron in there with the lead solder. Yep, irons used be shaped lumps of, well, iron heated over the fire then pressed on to clothes to, clothes.

Maybe future washing machines will deliver laundered clothes fully pressed, I wonder if they'll have a little icon of an iron to show when the the ironing process is underway.

Useful Links

Learn More about the Sumer Civilisation - a brief summary from San José State University.
A Summary of how the Sumerians 'created' time. - a less flippant explanation about Summer and time.