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Have You Ever Wondered Where 'Hour' Comes From?

People may or may not at times wonder about how we came by the word, “Hour”, to denote a specific amount of time. The origin of ‘hour’ is interesting and somewhat ironic because it isn’t what most people would normally expect. In fact, the word is based on religious tradition.

From a phonetic standpoint, two words that sound identical but which have totally different meanings are “hour” and “our”. An hour is a unit of time consisting of 60 minutes or 3600 seconds. That is substantially different than ‘our’, a word that means ‘belonging to us’. The ‘h’ in ‘hour’ is silent, but we denote the difference in the two words by the difference in spelling.

So where did ‘hour’ come from?

Around the year 1200 AD, the day was divided into time segments by the church, with one of those segments being devoted to prayer. That period of prayer was called the ‘canonical hour’, from the Old French “hore”.

Hore had a double meaning, though they were related. It meant ‘canonical hour’, but it also meant ‘one-twelfth of the day’, with a day being the period of time from sunrise to sunset.

Hore traces its origins back the ancient Greek word “hora”. Hora meant any limited period of time during a day, month, or year. One-twelfth of a day that was to be devoted to prayer would definitely be a limited period of time. The Greek word hora also meant a season. Thus, summer was also an hora.

It wasn’t until the 1400s that ‘hore’ was changed slightly with the notion that each day was separated into 12 time periods of equal length. Until then, a hore could have a varying length. Gradually, hore came to be written ‘hour’, keeping the more precise meaning of a twelfth of a day, with the length of each hour being the same as the length of any other hour.

The “h” has been silent since Roman times, but the letter is still included when spelling the word properly.

Back when the word was first used, it should be pointed out that the measurement of time we now know as an hour, again a period that was to be devoted to prayer, only existed during the day. There were no hours during the night. Nighttime was divided into four sections of time, each of which was generally watched over by guards. The night periods of time were referred to as watches, and from this, we also get the term “watch”, which is a timepiece. In fact, we still use the term watch-guard, literally ‘one who guards during a watch’. The current meaning of watch-guard isn’t limited the night anymore. We still also use the term ‘night-watch’, which was originally ‘one-fourth of the night’.

Still, what all of this boils down to is that an hour was originally a period of prayer.

  • Did you know that the word “hour” originally meant “a designated period of prayer”?

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Written by Rex Trulove


  1. What a fascinating post. I never would have guessed that the terms hour had religious beginnings; and the term watch pertained to time periods during the night.