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Origins explained: Days, hours, minutes and seconds

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Whenever I grow tired of hearing the major news of the day, normally consisting of who is to blame for all the world’s problems or who has murdered whom, I often get the urge to occupy myself with something more relaxing and entertaining.

That’s when I resort to one of the favorite books from my personal library titled “The Book of Totally Useless Information” written in 1993 by Don Voorhees.

The book is aptly-named and supplies answers to questions most of us have never thought about as indicated on the book’s dust jacket, which reads; “Everything You Never Wanted to Know – Over 200 Explanations for the Not-So-Important Questions in Life.”

Most of the questions along with their explanations are true classics, such as “Why do we yell Geronimo when we jump out if planes?” and “Why do the elephant and donkey represent the Republican and Democratic parties?

Allow me to list others.

Do you know why there are seven days in a week, 24 hours in a day, 60 minutes in an hour and 60 seconds in a minute?

Go ahead, take a guess.

According to the book, there is no mathematical or astronomical reason for the number of days in a week as there is for the number of days or months in a year, which are determined by the movements of the sun and the moon, respectively.

The answers to these questions mostly involve old-world nations beginning with the Babylonians, who lived more than 4,000 years ago in Babylon, the most famous city from ancient Mesopotamia whose ruins lie in modern-day Iraq.

The Babylonians were the first civilization to have a seven-day week that was created so they could devote one day each week to worshiping each of the seven heavenly bodies they knew of at the time — Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn the moon and the sun.

We can also thank the Babylonians for the divisions of seconds, minutes and hours.

Any number could have been chosen for the above, but the Babylonians considered 60 for the number of seconds in a minute and minutes in an hour because it was a mystical number and no lower number could be divided by more numbers.

Still with me?

By now you might think I’m totally full of it, and I may very well be, but I promise I am not making any of this up.

The early Egyptians are responsible for the 24 hours in a day, derived by dividing the night into 12 segments corresponding to the rising of 12 stars or constellations over the eastern horizons.

They had 10 divisions for daytime representing the 10 positions of the sun and two more divisions for dawn and dusk.

As for the names of the days of the week several countries were involved. So as to upset no one, we will list them all.

Several thousand years ago, England was a much-conquered country mainly because of the Romans and the Saxons, a tribe of people who occupied the region which today is the North Sea coast of the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark.

Originally all the days of the week had Roman names representing the planets in the solar system, but that gradually changed.

The Romans believed the first hour of each day was ruled by a different planet and the days of the week were named accordingly.

After the Saxon invasions, certain days were renamed for Teutonic gods.

Teutonic, according to Wikipedia, refers to Celtic tribes of people and cultures mentioned by Greek and Roman authors.

Sunday is an English translation of the Latin for Suns’s Day, the Teutonic sacred day of the sun.

Monday is from the Anglo-Saxon Monan-daeg, meaning Moon’s Day.

Tuesday is named in honor of the Teutonic god Tiw, the son of Woden.

Wednesday is named after the supreme Teutonic god, Woden.

Thursday is named for Woden’s son, Thor, god of thunder and lightning.

Friday is from the Anglo-Saxon Frigg-daeg, named to honor Frigg, the wife of Woden and the goddess of marriage and love.

Saturday is from the Anglo-Saxon ‘Saeter-daeg, and named for the Roman god of Saturn.

You may consider all this too complicated, but just try to imagine if any of the above decisions had been left up to a modern-day committee or based on politics.

It would likely have involved hundreds of years of debating or bickering with no one ever being happy with the final choices.

Furthermore, you can almost guarantee someone will decide they don’t like something, like the name of a day, and it will have to be changed.

Keith Barnes is a reporter for the Johnstonian News. Email him at