Question about the language we use when telling the time.
April 21, 2006 2:07 AM   Subscribe

In time, is the phrase "the back of seven" (for example), just after 7 o'clock or just before 8 o'clock? How does the language we use to tell the time vary from place to place?

If I tell someone that I'll pick them up at "the back of seven", I mean that I'll collect them sometime between 5 and 20 minutes past 7 o'clock.

However, my girlfriend inists that this means I'll pick up her just before 8 o'clock, because "back of seven" means the 'back end of the hour between 7 and 8 o'clock.'

Obviously this can create some confusion. I suspect it's down to regional variations in the way tell the time and use language (I'm from Glasgow, she's from Durham), but is there a definitive answer?

And how is the phrase "back of seven (or any hour)" interpreted around the world?
posted by Nugget to Writing & Language (48 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
This UK person can't recall ever having heard that phrase used, let alone knowing what it means!
posted by malevolent at 2:33 AM on April 21, 2006


"10 to" versus "10 of" is one that crops up a lot between Irish English and US English. Or variations thereof. And I learned long ago that many USians are incapable of understanding what "half past" means.
posted by meehawl at 2:38 AM on April 21, 2006


Never heard the phrase, after living in the U.S. for 23 years and South East UK for almost three.
posted by grouse at 2:50 AM on April 21, 2006


In answer to your latter question (How does the language we use to tell the time vary from place to place?), I've found adjusting to British English a bit hard at times.

When someone says 'half seven', they mean half past seven. I don't know if this is simply because of my Finnish upbringing, but for me half seven always meant 6:30. Is this only because I've translated the Finnish directly into English, or how would Americans (or other native English speakers) interpret 'half X'?

And no, I've never heard of 'the back of seven'...
posted by slimepuppy at 2:52 AM on April 21, 2006 [1 favorite]


In east central scotland, "the back of seven" means just after seven o'clock and it's a common phrase there, kin.
posted by the cuban at 3:03 AM on April 21, 2006


All of us adopt a very strong spatial metaphor when we're talking about time. Whether we do it consciously or not, we talk about time as if it were a long line in space that we're walking and looking along in one direction. Specific times, like '8pm', we picture as markers on this timeline.

A lot of our language reflects this. For example 'between 9am and 5pm.' 'That took a long time.'

I'd say that the key difference between you and your girlfriend is this: when you hear the phrase '7' you imagine an inifinitely thin marker on the timeline pointing at one specific point. Before 7pm, you're looking at the front of the marker. But just after 7pm, you'd have to look at the back of the marker. Hence, 'the back of 7'.

Your girlfriend seems to view '7' as meaning the expanse of time between 7pm and 8pm. This is probably related to how we use the hour figure in expressions like '7:25pm' or '7:41pm', as a label to indicate what specific time in the day we're talking about. In that sense, the marker '7' refers to a whole hour block of time, and that's a stronger metaphor for her.

So we she thinks of '7', she imagines this block of time, like a train car, sitting on the time rail. To get the the back of it, she has to go through most of it, until she's almost at 8pm.

(For what it's worth, I've lived in London all my life, and I've never heard the expression 'back of 7'. My girlfriend is from Durham too, though, so I'll have to ask her what she thinks!)
posted by chrismear at 3:28 AM on April 21, 2006


If I say "...the back of seven" I'll mean five or ten to seven or thereabouts i.e. just behind seven o' clock. Obviously a useless way of arranging a rendezvous!
posted by brautigan at 3:28 AM on April 21, 2006


And I learned long ago that many USians are incapable of understanding what "half past" means.

As a USian, I've never had trouble with "half past" but when one says "half seven" I never know if that's half PAST seven or halfway TO seven.

I've never heard the phrase "back of seven" but I guess I'd assume it meant a few minutes before seven, like "[in] back of seven"
posted by srah at 3:28 AM on April 21, 2006


'half seven' is always half past seven in the UK, and I had no idea it caused confusion in Americans! slimepuppy, it probably is because of your Finnish upbringing that you get confused - German speakers and (I think) Russian speakers have the same problem - as do English speakers learning Finnish, German etc.
posted by altolinguistic at 3:42 AM on April 21, 2006


In Catalan, 6:30 is "two quarters of seven", and 6:35 would be "ten minutes left to three quarters of seven". Drives me nuts.

I've lived lots of years in London and New York, and I've never heard "the back of seven".
posted by fuzz at 4:06 AM on April 21, 2006


There's some variability in the way different German dialects address matters of time, too.

Halb sieben (half 7) means 6:30 here in Vienna and some other parts of Austria. Viertel sieben (quarter 7) means 6:15 here, and dreiviertel sieben "three quarters 7" means 6:45. I have been told that some German-speakers from other regions translate at least one, and perhaps more of these formulations, respectively, to 7:30, 7:15 and 7:45. (A little confusion there, because I'm not sure which or how many of the formulations are translated differently, but I know that at least one of them is).

For me, the viertel sieben (quarter seven) formulation is the most confusing, as in my English (orig. from Texas, also spent time in South Carolina and Maryland / D.C.), we say "quarter to 7" for 6:45 and "quarter after 7" for 7:15. This is confusing, because neither of these variations match up with the local "quarter 7", meaning 6:15. I understand the logic of the translation, but it's still confusing when I hear it in conversation.

More German time formulations:
Knapp sieben (short of 7) means "just before seven".
Kurz nach sieben (shortly after 7) needs no additional explanation.
posted by syzygy at 4:06 AM on April 21, 2006


but for me half seven always meant 6:30

Afrikaans was exactly the same (probably from the German, which has the same rule afaik)
posted by twistedonion at 4:20 AM on April 21, 2006


My father-in-law (born in the wilderness of north-western Kansas) uses the term "half-before". "Half-before-seven" would mean 6:30.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:37 AM on April 21, 2006


chrismear, that's exactly how I imaging the back of seven and many thanks for putting it into words.

I'm also surprised at how many haven't heard of the phrase "back of.." when telling the time. Maybe it's more local than I thought..
posted by Nugget at 4:42 AM on April 21, 2006


I'm guessing 'the back of seven' is peculiar to Scotland/north-east England - I grew up in the north-west (Liverpool) and now live in the south-east and have never come across it. (fwiw I'd take it as just after 7)

Never knew about the US/German half/quarter problems. I have a German-speaking American-born friend who'll be visiting the UK soon. Could have some fun there >:)
posted by corvine at 4:47 AM on April 21, 2006


syzygy - how weird! Thanks for teaching me something new.

(I'm from the South East of the UK and have never heard of 'back of seven', and neither have my Lancashire/Yorkshire friends so it must be from even further north than that, I guess)
posted by altolinguistic at 5:10 AM on April 21, 2006


I suspect it's down to regional variations

Exactly. It's just a matter of what people have gotten used to saying and hearing (which often is incomprehensible to people from elsewhere—and I too, as a widely traveled Yank, have never heard the "back of" formulation). The problem is that people make up "logical" reasons why their form is "right" and argue with other people, instead of simply accepting the difference.
posted by languagehat at 5:20 AM on April 21, 2006


It's a very southern-Scotland thing. Michael Munro's The Patter (the semi-scholarly glossary of Glaswegian dialect) defines it as the period just after the hour: "There's no set length to this period, but it would probably not extend beyond twenty minutes".

Time language varies greatly by region; f'rinstance in Yorkshire, "while" can mean "until". It may be an urban myth, but there's the story of the Yorkshireman who was killed after reading the sign on a level crossing: "Do not cross while lights are flashing".
posted by scruss at 5:29 AM on April 21, 2006


As an American living in the UK, I still feel like "half seven" should mean 6:30 somehow. Even though I know that's not what it means, no one in America uses that phrase, and I didn't learn the German until after living here.
posted by grouse at 5:58 AM on April 21, 2006


Another American with no problem with half-past, but who would never say half-, three-quarters-X: always half-past, ten till, quarter till, etc.

One time thing I've always noticed varying is what people mean by "this weekend." I have friends for whom "this" is always the soonest weekend to come. So on a Monday, "this" would be the coming weekend. For me, and some others I know, "this" is the closest weekend, whether it's backwards or forwards, so on a Monday, "this" is the one just past and "next" is the coming weekend. Always made for fun.
posted by dame at 5:59 AM on April 21, 2006


dame: One time thing I've always noticed varying is what people mean by "this weekend."

And, conversely, "next weekend", etc. I had a high school physics teacher who was from India. One Monday, he told our class to expect a major test "next Thursday". All of my classmates and I thought he meant "Thursday of the following week" when he really meant "Thursday of the current week" (what we considered to be "this Thursday").

Fortunately, our principle intervened and convinced him that his wording could be considered confusing, and he gave us an extra week to prepare for the test. From then on, he gave us test dates in actual date format (USAmerican date format -- MM/DD/YYYY, as opposed to European date format -- DD/MM/YYYY).

altolinguistic: syzygy - how weird! Thanks for teaching me something new.

You're welcome! On the logic behind the German formulation that I mentioned above:
It's similar to the way the Chinese tell their ages (as I understand it). A Chinese child is one as soon as it is born (that is, it is in its first year). 365 (or 364) days after its birth, the child turns two, and so on.

In German, it's the same, but with times. "Quarter 7" (6:15) means "one quarter of the 7th hour has been reached". Think of midnight -- 0 hour. At 0:15, one quarter of the first hour of the day has been reached. It's logical, but still strange to the uninitiated.
posted by syzygy at 6:40 AM on April 21, 2006 [1 favorite]


Lets drop this preconception that Americans have trouble with "half past Six," etc, etc. I, nor any other American I know, do not have trouble figuring that one out. One post != everyone.

That said, I've never heard Back of Seven either. The most common time phrases I hear are the Half variety or "quarter after/quarter til." Which, of course, mean either 15 minutes before or after the hour. People use "ten til" or "ten past," but thats really a form used with any number, though usually not on numbers that fall near the quarter or half positions.
posted by Atreides at 6:42 AM on April 21, 2006


When I hear "back of seven," I imagine it similar to how I imagine "the pen is in back of the lamp." The lamp is closer to me and immediately afterwards comes the pen just as I would expect back of seven to come immediately after seven.
posted by Aghast. at 6:50 AM on April 21, 2006


I'm from New England, where we use "quarter till," "quarter to" and "quarter of" interchangeably. "Of" is most used when the hour is assumed ("What time is it?" "It's quarter of.") I think it's "quarter of" (or "five of," etc) that some people from other parts have had a hard time with. They're not sure whether that's 15 minutes before or fifteen minutes after. In truth, it doesn't really make sense either way. But there it is.

I had a long, exasperating conversation with my handsome guy from India once, trying to explain to him that "until" and "till" were the same thing. He thought they were opposites.
posted by lampoil at 6:53 AM on April 21, 2006


Atreides - the suggestion is *not* that Americans have a problem with 'half past six' but that they have a problem with (for example) 'half six'. Which means 'half past six' but is said without the 'past'. It's commonly said that way in the UK.
posted by altolinguistic at 7:03 AM on April 21, 2006


I've never heard of "back of 7" and I wouldn't understand what you meant by it if you said it to me. As a Canadian, I had trouble getting used to a few of the time mannerisms my Irish girlfriend uses:

- "half 7" meaning 7:30, which I understood right off the bat but found very odd
- "monday week" meaning... I think, a week from next monday
- the whole "this weekend/next weekend" issue.
posted by antifuse at 7:12 AM on April 21, 2006


This eyetracking study [PDF] bears tangentally on the question...
Abstract: Telling time is an exercise in coordinating language production with visual perception. By coupling different ways of saying times with different ways of seeing them, the performance of time-telling can be used to track cognitive transformations from visual to verbal information in connected speech. To accomplish this, we used eyetracking measures along with measures of speech timing during the production of time expressions.
posted by dmd at 7:14 AM on April 21, 2006


As an Australian, I've never heard "back of 7" before. To me, "half six" means 6:30, although having learnt German in school I can understand the confusion on this point in continental languages.

On a broader timescale, I find it interesting that Queenslanders use the phrase "of a morning", where as I, as a South Australian, use the phrase in the morning.

For example, "I used to go out, of a morning, and collect the milk", compared to "I used to go out in the morning and collect the milk".
posted by Jimbob at 8:05 AM on April 21, 2006


Another USian here who wouldn't know what to do with half six or back of seven. Quarter/ten/five 'til and quarter/ten/five after are what I'd say for those times.

I never had trouble understanding the French expressions like six heures et demie for 6:30 and sept heures moins le quart for 6:45.

Come to think of it, I think my Indian astronomy professor ran into the same problem scheduling quizzes and exams for next Monday vs. this Monday.

Interesting discussion. Thanks for asking the question.
posted by emelenjr at 8:18 AM on April 21, 2006


For example, "I used to go out, of a morning, and collect the milk",

I'm from the New York tri-state area, and I understand this to be a regional (and old-timey) Ozark or Appalachian dialect phrase. Crops up periodically in Kentucky-born author Bobbie Ann Mason's fiction.

I also lived in New Orleans briefly, where I discovered that down there "evening" is synonymous with "afternoon" or basically just any time after lunch.
posted by scratch at 8:33 AM on April 21, 2006


As a Glaswegian (well actually I'm from lanarkshire) I can confirm that back of 7 means any time between 701 and 714. Anything later than that would be covered by other expressions such as 'around quarter past' etc. Anyone who suggests otherwise should be told of the error of their ways.

My girlfriend (also from Glasgow via Lanarkshire) insists that my definition means nothing of the sort. She saysthat it means towards eight o clock. As in the back-end, fag-end, tail-end of seven.

I hope this clears this up.
posted by ClanvidHorse at 8:45 AM on April 21, 2006


Apologies for the slapdash comment. I am very busy but couldn't resist putting in my tuppence ha'penny with such an interesting question.
posted by ClanvidHorse at 8:48 AM on April 21, 2006


Irish woman here, also never heard back of 7 and have been in SE UK for 5 years.
However, half 7 is the most common way in Ireland of saying 7.30. It took me ages to get used to German, I was an hour late everytime, but hey, they thought that was Irish!
If I say "next Thursday" I mean the Thursday coming (of this week) otherwise, like the Irish girlfiend mentioned above, I will say Thursday week. I now know why that causes confusion here in the UK. Again thanks for the thread
posted by Wilder at 8:59 AM on April 21, 2006


As a Glaswegian (well actually I'm from lanarkshire) I can confirm that back of 7 means any time between 701 and 714. Anything later than that would be covered by other expressions such as 'around quarter past' etc. Anyone who suggests otherwise should be told of the error of their ways.

Agreed. It seems very much a west of Scotland/weegie expression, judging from the above. No one, apart from my west of scotland friends, seems to say it over here in Edinburgh, anyway.

And my dad's from Lanarkshire, and he says it (often) to mean not-long-after seven. Just to add to the confusion.
posted by Little Bravado at 9:40 AM on April 21, 2006


Another Yank who's never heard 'back of seven."

But I wanted to add, regarding "half" -- the Japanese also do this with time, but they do it the non-German (ie more universal) way: seven-hour-half means 7:30.

A notable aspect of that language: months aren't named. The designation for March is Three-month, November is Eleven-month, etc.
posted by Rash at 9:48 AM on April 21, 2006


My Scottish colleague (from Edinburgh) understands it to mean "just after seven" but he seems to be the only person of any region/nationality in my office who has ever heard of it. No confusion with half six meaning 6.30 though.

I would say the "this/next Thursday" thing depends on the gap between the day on which you are speaking and the day in question, so that speaking on a Monday I would use "this Thursday" and "next Thursday" interchangeably to mean "Thursday of this week" and use "Thursday week" to mean "Thursday of next week". Conversely, I'd use

That may be why people I often confuse and we have to resort to the calendar.
posted by patricio at 10:08 AM on April 21, 2006


whoops, missed a bit: Conversely, speaking on a Wednesday I would use "this Thursday" to mean "Thursday of this week" and use "next Thursday" interchangeably with "Thursday week" to mean "Thursday of next week".
posted by patricio at 10:09 AM on April 21, 2006


Interesting question. In a culture where "begs the question" means different things to different people, and "could care less" means the same as "couldn't care less", it often boils down to choosing your tribe. The aloof "correctors" display their wisdom, pointing to history yet simultaneously ignoring it, since usage has always evolved from prior usage. The "manglers" prefer to indulge their folksy alliances. Words and phrases are like all those animals at Chernobyl, adapting and thriving in conditions some think are dreadful. And if usage is the final determiner, there must be a chronological, geographical, or cultural tipping point where both usages are "correct".
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 10:14 AM on April 21, 2006


"half 7" meaning 7:30, which I understood right off the bat but found very odd

It's just a contraction of 'half past 7'. Why anyone would refer to half of something in terms of the next full number is mindboggling - we don't do it with decimals who why do it with time? It's simple really - anything after 30 minutes, you express time in terms of the following hour; otherwise use the current one.

"monday week" meaning... I think, a week from next monday

Correct. That's an archaic one I have no hope of explaining.

the whole "this weekend/next weekend" issue.

Here's the way I've always taken this one. The week you are in (from Monday to Sunday) is 'this week'. Any day after Sunday is 'next week', then 'the week after next' and so on. Therefore, 'this weekend' should refer to the weekend of 'this week', while 'next weekend' should refer to the weekend of 'next week'. Anyone who says otherwise is just wilfulling confusing things, and they deserve a thorough seeing to.
posted by macdara at 10:24 AM on April 21, 2006


Why anyone would refer to half of something in terms of the next full number is mindboggling

I think languagehat's response deserves repeating: The problem is that people make up "logical" reasons why their form is "right" and argue with other people, instead of simply accepting the difference.

Personally, I avoid phrases like "this weekend" or "next Thursday" because they are potentially ambiguous and I care more about communication than making a point. "This coming Saturday" or "a week after Thursday" are pretty unambiguous.
posted by grouse at 10:46 AM on April 21, 2006


I'm a native Floridian. I've always heard it as "back half of 7," meaning anytime from 7:30-8pm - I picture it using chrismear's train car analogy. I seldom hear either variant of the phrase used and am struggling to remember where I picked it up.
posted by Sangre Azul at 11:06 AM on April 21, 2006


I've a BA in English and fan of etymology, live in Texas.

I've heard the phrase before and always just assumed it meant anywhere from 7:30-7:59, being the back "half" of 7 o'clock. If it meant between 7:05-7:20, I would not have been ready in time yet. I have also heard "the latter half of 7," which I assumed was the same thing, but perhaps I am mistaken -- I've never looked it up, nor is it in any of my books.
posted by vanoakenfold at 11:28 AM on April 21, 2006


One more Canadian chiming in. I've never heard the phrase used before, anywhere in Canada and throughout visits to the USA.
posted by Meagan at 12:58 PM on April 21, 2006


I don't think anyone's cracked the 'this weekend'/'next weekend' thing - clarification is always required, in the form of dates usually. I'd be interested to hear of a language in which the distinction is clearly encoded.

If I say 'this weekend' I generally mean the weekend coming up - in exceptional circumstances, and only if the context is clear, I might be talking about the weekend just past - if I were talking to a colleague on Monday morning, for instance, and if we were talking about weekends.

'Next weekend' is so much more complicated, and my b/f will always claim he is confused as to what I mean - this coming weekend, or the one following that? We always manage to clear it up though.
posted by altolinguistic at 2:42 PM on April 21, 2006


Suprised that nobody in the UK has mentioned using the phrase five and twenty to in place of twenty-five to.

Probably limited to the north of England.
Usage is now deprecated.
posted by seanyboy at 4:40 PM on April 21, 2006


I find the usage "[a] quarter of ten" a bit strange, because my brain always tries to do the implict maths. 10/4 = 2.5. I should meet you at two point five?

Just because nobody's mentioned it so far, in Arabic they use thirds as well as halves and quarters.

Twenty past ten can be expressed "Ashara wa tilit" -- "ten and a third".
posted by AmbroseChapel at 5:21 PM on April 21, 2006


"Half seven" I would interpret as 3.5 and would never even consider thinking of it as time, because it sure doesn't sound like one. I would wonder why the person saying it just didn't say 3.5, though.
posted by kindall at 7:43 PM on April 21, 2006


In Edinburgh 'the back of 7' means any time after 7 - the exact interpretation of any time tends to vary - for one person 7 - 7.15, for another it could mean anytime from 7 - 8.30.

The key point is that the phrase is used informally when you don't want to be too specific about the exact timing.
posted by Lanark at 10:41 AM on April 22, 2006


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