Le cul entre les deux chaises

An American Spaniard in France or: How I Learned to Make an Ass of Myself in Three Cultures

Word Mystery: watch / reloj / montre


Wednesdays, I explore the linguistic origins of the same word in different languages.

RIP my watch. (2014 is apparently the year many of my things retire.)


I got this watch on Avinguda Josep Tarradelles in Barcelona many years ago for 40€. It was a temporary replacement for my real watch whose bevel case had cracked but the damn replacement wouldn’t stop working! For many years, it was my trusty companion, alerting me to when my students’ hour-long classes were drawing to a close from its discreet spot next to my water bottle.

Shortly after I arrived in France, it started losing time which I thought was apt since I was taking a break from working to just relax a bit and see how I felt about things. It was a while before I figured out where in Lyon one buys a watch battery (the Part Dieu shopping mall!) and after I replaced it, the damn thing still kept running for a few more years.

Last year, it started losing time again, but a new lease on life battery didn’t make it work any better, so it has to go to watch heaven. There’s some kind of easy Proust joke about time, lost, remembered and otherwise here, but I won’t disrespect an honorable timepiece by making fun of it.

EN → watch — a small timepiece worn typically on a strap on one’s wrist. ORIGIN Old English wæcce [watchfulness]. The sense ‘small timepiece’ probably developed by way of a sense “alarm device attached to a clock.”

ES → relojMáquina dotada de movimiento uniforme, que sirve para medir el tiempo o dividir el día en horas, minutos y segundos. [Machine equipped with uniform movement which serves to measure time or divide the day into hours, minutes and seconds.] ORIGIN Scandal! The RAE won’t give any kind of origin info, but another site I frequently use tells a good and logical story. Reloj is probably derived from the Greek oorologion [list of hours] but the evolution to end in -j is “controversial.” (Only one other word in Spanish ends in -j — which my mother is probably saying under her breath right now — carcaj [quiver for arrows].

FR → montrePetit appareil portatif, fonctionnant dans toutes les positions, servant à donner l’heure et d’autres indications. [Small portable apparatus, which works in all positions, which serves to tell the time and give other indications.] ORIGIN From the verb montrer [to show / demonstrate].

English note: a thing I like about English is that it differentiates between a clock and watch. Unless you’re Flavor Flav, they aren’t the same thing.

Spanish note: I’m not even gonna pretend — a scandal in the etymology community guarantees a win, so Spain runs away with it today.

French note: the “it works in all directions / senses” is a weird thing to me. It’s not like watches are space pens. Why wouldn’t you be able to read one upside down? Why was this particular feature called out in the definition? Totally weird.

Author: le cul en rows

I'm an American Spaniard, living in France. I like to tell stories.

3 thoughts on “Word Mystery: watch / reloj / montre

  1. I’m guessing that the French want to clarify that you’re not wearing a sun-dial on your wrist.

  2. Why I hyphenated sundial I do not know.

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