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Recently I was at the Naval Air Station in Brunswick enjoying the air show, and someone next to me was trying to tell his friend where the Blue Angels were, and he said: “They're at 2 o'clock.”
His friend looked over at him all confused and said, “Two o'clock? What are you talking about, it's three forty-five. I just want to know where the jets are.”
By that time, of course, the jets had gone roaring over and were well on their way to another part of the wild blue yonder.
It was also obvious to me and anyone else listening in that the friend had no idea what was meant by “They're at 2 o'clock.”
The man began explaining to his friend that the jets were at the two o'clock position on the face of a clock or watch. Oh, his friend said, he didn't wear a watch. He used the digital clock on his cell phone.
And another way of communicating bites the dust.
I remember the first time I heard some use the clock face to describe something's whereabouts. It was logical, and I couldn't wait to use the example on someone else.
Some people are good at visualizing the clock face, but some people are great at it. You might say: “Look at that planes up there at 7 o'clock.” The other person might say. “You mean 7:12.” And then you'd argue about it until the planes were long gone.
No matter how colorful such images are and no matter how long they've been in use, digital watches and clocks are slowly making such talk obsolete. What do driving instructors these days tell their digitally minded students about keeping their hands on the wheel at 10 and 2?
It's unlikely the digital clock will give us any useful expressions or ways of locating things. And as far as we know the sundial never produced any clever expressions, either. You'd have to go back to the hourglass to get anything we still use. There are expressions like “hour-glass” figure, and clever phrases involving the “sands of time.”
It's not known how long people have been using clock-face expressions but we know it didn't start until at least the 15 century because the modern clock face didn't come along until about 1400.
Before then clocks had a stationary hand and the numbers moved around a circle. It would have been hard to say an object in the sky was at 3 o'clock because all the hours were at the same place on the clock face. Besides that there weren't as many things flying around in those days.
As time marched on they may have decided to make the numbers stationary and rotate the dials just so they could start using expressions like: It's at 8 o'clock.
And when the little hand is on 6 and the big hand is on 12 it either means the air show's over or its time for supper.
John McDonald is a humorist and storyteller who performs regularly
throughout New England. John’s e-mail address is
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