how people have used time

Sunday, January 03, 2010 | |

Yongsan train yard

A little while ago, while studying some Korean, I happened across an example sentence about time in an online Korean dictionary that struck me as so whimsical I googled the entire thing to see if there was more where it came from. Turns out there was; it was a passage used as a text in a widely distributed sample of a Korean standardized English test. I tried to piece the whole thing together from as many different sources as I could. This is the result:

How people have used time

It may seem silly, but everything to do with time is based on the sun coming up and going down. Every time the sun comes up and goes down, we call it a day. The amount of time between summers we call a year. A long time ago, people divided the day into two halves called "ante meridian" and "post meridian". The meridian is the time when the sun is at its highest. This is fine when your life is nice and simple. Dividing the day in this way helped people to plan things to the nearest half day.

Suppose you are a sheep; you could plan your schedule like this...
15 April a.m.: Eat some grass
15 April p.m.: Walk for exercise
16 April a.m.: Eat some....
16 April p.m.: ...............

However, imagine phoning the station and asking when the next train to Busan is leaving. "In the afternoon" isn't much help. You may have to sit there for hours waiting, or you may arrive too late and miss it. Unless you're a sheep, time needs to be more accurate.

Days were later divided into 24 hours, which were numbered in two sets of twelve. That meant there were 12 hours in the morning and 12 hours in the afternoon and evening. This helped all sorts of people. Now priests could plan their church services throughout the day. Sailors could tell when they were supposed to be on watch or in bed. Twenty-four might seem like a strange number to choose, but it divides neatly into halves, quarters, thirds, or sixths. If they had divided a day into twenty-three hours, it would have been a real problem. Imagine what a clock face would look like! Hours are nice periods of time, but unfortunately people started to say things like...
A: When is the next train to New York?
B: Sometime between 6 and 7 p.m.
A: I want to know the exact time.

Sixty is another good number because it divides neatly into halves, thirds, quarters, fifths, sixths, tenths... Of course, people then went one step further and divided each minute up into sixty seconds. Luckily for most of us, that's the smallest bit of time that we need to worry about.

Even though there are years, months, hours, minutes, and seconds, you don't need to use all of them at once. Suppose it's your birthday and you send out an invitation like this:
Please come to my party on May 3, 2001 at 29 minutes and 38 seconds past 6 p.m.

One of two things will happen:

1.Everybody will arrive at 29 minutes and 38 seconds past 6 and get stuck in your doorway.
2.They will think you're quite strange and decide not to come at all.

Of course, the seconds are too short to worry about, so leave them out. A few minutes don't matter so much, so just say "half past six" or "6:30". On the other hand, a year is so long that everyone knows what year you are talking about. So you don't really need to put the year in, either. When you leave these extra details out, it gives you room on your invitation to put much more important things:
Please come to my party on May 3, at 6:30 p.m. and don't forget to bring me a big present

There are some events whose exact time is usually given in more detail than others. Astronomers are probably silliest about this. They sit at their telescopes for days and then proudly tell us that there will be a complete eclipse of the sun at 8 minutes and 19 seconds past 4 o'clock on the morning of January 5, 2167. It's funny that these same people can also be very uncertain about other times, such as:
A: When did you buy that shirt you're wearing?
B: It was back in nineteen eighty something... I think.

Happy new year.

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