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Why Does ‘a Quarter of’ Mean the Same Thing as ‘a Quarter to’?

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What does ”a quarter of 10” mean to you? A friend asked me this question recently and I thought the answer was obvious: It means 15 minutes before 10 o’clock. But there are apparently many people who find this construction confusing or have never heard of it. Why do some of us say “a quarter of” instead of “a quarter to” or “a quarter before”?

My first thought was that this “of” must be a holdover from some old construction that has fallen out of use, perhaps related to phrases like “of the clock” which eventually was shortened to “o’clock.” But according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the “quarter of” type of time-telling dates to 1817, which is not all that long ago in language history terms (“of the clock” dates all the way back to Chaucer). The first citation (“At 15 minutes of 10 a.m….”) is from an Indiana journal, and the construction appears to be chiefly American, though it is also found in Scottish and Irish English. 

It may have originated with the phrase type “It wants/lacks a quarter of 10.” This way of telling time goes way back and was used in both England and the U.S. Here, from the Antiquarian Horological Society, is an example of someone complaining about the inaccuracy of public clocks in London in 1692:

I was in Covent Garden when the clock struck two, when I came to Somerset-house by that it wanted a quarter of two, when I came to St. Clements it was half an hour past two, when I came to St. Dunstans it wanted a quarter of two, by Mr. Knib’s Dyal in Fleet-street it was just two, when I came to Ludgate it was half an hour past one, when I came to Bow Church, it wanted a quarter of two, by the Dyal near Stocks Market it was a quarter past two, and when I came to the Royal Exchange it wanted a quarter of two: This I aver for a Truth, and desire to know how long I was walking from Covent Garden to the Royal Exchange?

The use of "it wanted of" or "it lacked of" in reports on time was common into the 19th century, and it’s likely that the “of” construction some of us use today is just a shortening of that phrase type. But who shortened it? Which of us use it? And why?

Unfortunately, this question was not a part of the Harvard Dialect Survey, but it’s my sense from looking at online discussions of the construction and other anecdotal experience that “a quarter of” is common in the Northeast and the Midwest, and rare in the South and West. There do seem to be plenty of people all over who have never heard it (or who think of it as a “grandma” phrase).

As with most dialect features, it can be hard to pinpoint why something hangs on in one place and not others. In British English they use "half-ten' to mean 10:30. In Scotland, “back of 10” means a bit past 10—anywhere from 10:05 to 10:15. When we learn to tell time, we also have to learn the linguistic quirks of how we talk about time. The “of” construction is a quirk that I happened to pick up. What about you? Do you use “a quarter of” (or “five of” or “10 of”…) when talking about time?

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Big Questions
How Are Rooms Cleaned at an Ice Hotel?

Cleaning rooms at Sweden’s famous ICEHOTEL is arguably less involved than your typical hotel. The bed, for example, does not have traditional sheets. Instead, it’s essentially an air mattress topped with reindeer fur, which sits on top of a custom-made wooden palette that has a minimum of 60 centimeters of airspace below. On top of those reindeer hides is a sleeping bag, and inside that sleeping bag is a sleep sack. And while it’s always 20ºF inside the room, once guests wrap themselves up for the night, it can get cozy.

And, if they’re wearing too many layers, it can get quite sweaty, too.

“The sleep sack gets washed every day, I promise you that. I know it for a fact because I love to walk behind the laundry, because it’s so warm back there," James McClean, one of the few Americans—if not the only—who have worked at Sweden's ICEHOTEL, tells Mental Floss. (He worked on the construction and maintenance crew for several years.)

There isn’t much else to clean in most guest rooms. The bathrooms and showers are elsewhere in the hotel, and most guests only spend their sleeping hours in the space. But there is the occasional accident—like other hotels, some bodily fluids end up where they shouldn’t be. People puke or get too lazy to walk to the communal restrooms. Unlike other hotels, these bodily fluids, well, they freeze.

“You can only imagine the types of bodily fluids that get, I guess, excreted … or expelled … or purged onto the walls,” McClean says. “At least once a week there’s a yellow stain or a spilled glass of wine or cranberry juice … and it’s not what you want to see splattered everywhere.” Housekeeping fixes these unsightly splotches with an ice pick and shovel, re-patching it with fresh snow from outside.

Every room has a 4-inch vent drilled into the icy wall, which helps prevent CO2 from escalating to harmful levels. Maintenance checks the holes daily to ensure these vents are not plugged with snow. Their tool of choice for clearing the pathway is, according to McClean, “basically a toilet brush on a stick.”

When maintenance isn’t busy unstuffing snow from that vent hole, they’re busy piping snow through it. Every couple days, the floor of each room receives a new coat of fluffy snow, which is piped through the vent and leveled with a garden rake.

“It’s the equivalent of vacuuming the carpet,” McClean says.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Why Did We Start Wearing Pants?
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It’s a question that has plagued Donald Duck for decades: Who decided pants were necessary? Did the motivation stem purely from modesty, or was there another reason we started climbing into trousers?

Over at Discover, author Sarah Scoles has offered a plausible explanation by describing a 2014 archaeological find in China’s Tarim Basin. Researchers with the German Archaeological Institute excavated what is believed to be the oldest example of pants ever unearthed, made from wool and dating back 3000 years.

The pants themselves held no clue as to why they were made, but their location did. The research team found them buried at the Yanghai cemetery along with a number of other artifacts, including horse-riding gear that was in the same grave: a wooden bit, a bow, and an axe. The pants-wearer was surely someone tasked with galloping around and slaying animals for food—likely necessitating apparel that would allow him to mount a horse without being encumbered by clothing.

A screen shot of Donald Duck near a door
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That idea eventually bled into Greek and Roman culture, where those on horseback sought out a comfortable and practical way of avoiding chafing. (The grave’s proto-pants also appeared to be an early example of being fashion-conscious. While mostly practical, each leg had cross-stitching that appeared to be purely decorative.)

Whether the Yanghai discovery is considered the earliest example of pants depends on how one defines pants. Ötzi, the European iceman first discovered in 1991, lived roughly 5300 years ago and died wearing goatskin leggings. We know a cartoon duck who has a lot of catching up to do.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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