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When I hear people speak of "this ungodly hour" they are usually complaining about being awake (or especially working) earlier than they are accustomed.

But why is this called ungodly? It would seem that the diligence to arise early and begin work would be a mark of godliness. It seems that an "ungodly hour" would be a time, perhaps after midnight, when being awake is often associated with ungodly behavior, such as drunkenness and debauchery.

What is the history of this phrase?

Edit: 'ungodly hour', does carry the connotation of early, not just different than expected. Otherwise, ungodly means immoral. http://www.google.com/search?q=ungodly+definition

un·god·ly

adjective /ˌənˈgädlē/  ungodlier, comparative; ungodliest, superlative

Irreligious or immoral
    - ungodly lives of self-obsession, lust, and pleasure

Unreasonably early or inconvenient
    - I've been troubled by telephone calls at ungodly hours
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I'd imagine it's related to the witching time of night, which is about midnight, and is when "ungodly" things are at the height of their power. –  KitFox Jul 13 '11 at 11:20
    
@Kit that would also suggest that ungodly would mean late, not early. –  Eric Wilson Jul 13 '11 at 11:26
    
@FarmBoy: ungodly does not mean early hours, you can use it just as well when you sit very late into the night. Do you have a reference for it meaning "early" as you have stated? –  JoseK Jul 13 '11 at 11:30
    
@JoseK added citation for definition. –  Eric Wilson Jul 13 '11 at 11:32
    
@FarmBoy I see your point, although I think "witching time" would cover midnight to the wee hours, which is when all good god-fearing folk should be asleep. –  KitFox Jul 13 '11 at 12:17
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7 Answers

up vote 10 down vote accepted

Ungodly is being used in the sense of outrageous; shocking; dreadful; insufferable, rather than any of its religious meanings. So "an ungodly hour" just means "an outrageous time of day".

But how did the phrase has come to have a connotation of earliness?

When people complain about an "ungodly hour" it is usually because they are forced to be awake when they would prefer to be asleep.

It's not unusual to be compelled to get up earlier than you wish. Some people must get up early every weekday just to get to work on time. And on occasion they might have to get up very early - to catch an early flight for example.

It is far less common to be required to stay up late.

So, in most people's experience, when they find themselves talking about an "ungodly hour" it is far more likely to be early than late.

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It's the meaning of the word ungodly. "Ungodly" here means:

Informal unseemly; outrageous (esp in the phrase an ungodly hour)

So, it doesn't really matter what time it might be, it's just outrageous.

It can also be used for other things, as can be seen in this dictionary

outrageous; shocking; dreadful; insufferable: an ungodly roar; an ungodly hour to drop in.

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People don't actually say that, ungodly does mean early. –  Eric Wilson Jul 13 '11 at 11:24
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Not real sure what FarmBoy's problem with this answer is. I've heard ungodly used to describe all kinds of things that are so wrong they are practically evil. Particularly the heat here in Oklahoma (It's been over 100F here for almost a month now. Yes, that is ungodly hot). –  T.E.D. Jul 13 '11 at 11:52
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@T.E.D My comment was based on the first version of this answer. –  Eric Wilson Jul 13 '11 at 12:07
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I think the outrageousness is the important aspect, not the lateness. I can think of certain activities for which noon or just after work might be "ungodly" to some people, and for which midnight would be perfectly "normal". :-) –  R.. Jul 13 '11 at 15:33
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@Jimi: example from 1888 Fifty Years Ago by Walter Besant writes "Dinner was at four — a most ungodly hour, be tween lunch and the proper hour for dinner." –  JoseK Jul 13 '11 at 16:14
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The idea that an hour is ungodly is slightly hyperbolic; it implies that even God wouldn't be awake at this time, or that the hour is so improper for being awake and alert that it's morally obscene and thus abhorrent to God.

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Plainly spoken, godly is pious or devoutly religious.

An ungodly hour for any given activity would therefore be one where the pious are commonly indisposed to participate in said activity.

I don't think any history would be needed to trace the derivation of this use, but a good story is always welcome illustrating when a use of a certain phrase explodes in popularity.

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I'm astounded by the lack of nuance in the responses posted here. It isn't complicated. Mark Wallace is really on the right path about how this should work.

Ungodly has an original meaning.

Ungodly gets used in ways derivative of that by some analogy. We do that in English very often, even more so than the other languages with which I am familiar. Familiar is a great example. It starts meaning "pertaining to family," comes to mean, "acquainted," and ends up by meaning "cheeky" or "overly forward in social relations," as in "That man was treating your wife very familiarly."

There is certainly no reference to witching hours. That hypothesis seems very unlikely if for no other reason than that nobody would have thought of it until late development of neo-paganism and its quest for (I'm about to get it) establishment or social respect as being related somehow to ancient paganism. In 1950, that answer wouldn't have occurred to a single soul here.

KeithS has the key, here, that the word is being used with hyperbole. Specifically, the word is being used to express displeasure, which is emphasized by pretending that the displeasure is the result of an objective quality, to wit, impiety. It doesn't matter if the hour is early or late, the child's behavior is poor or the car's odor is atrocious - context tells all that. The key thing is that the speaker feels it is bad and wishes to emphasize the point.

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Useful answer, +1 despite the pretentious first sentence. –  Eric Wilson Jul 13 '11 at 20:07
    
Lol, fair enough. –  Ryan Jul 14 '11 at 19:43
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The earliest example I found in Google Books is from 1842 in Excursions along the shores of the Mediterranean (volume 1, page 347) by Lt. Colonel E. Napier. It appears in a footnote:

  • There is, I believe, a Spanish " refran," or saying, which means that none but Englishmen and dogs are to be met with at this ungodly hour.

It's a footnote to this text:

We put up our horses at a "venta," and strolled out to look at the lions ; but it was the still hour of the siesta and not even a dog was to be seen in the streets.*

Ungodly hour usually refers to the small hours of the night when (like "the still hour of the siesta") people are usually asleep, as found in the next examples in 1852 and 1856.

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My personal definition of ungodly hour is a subjective time, either really late or really early. What time specifically is ungodly depends who you talk to. I like to go to bad way past midnight, which my grandmother would consider ungodly. She likes to be up at 7AM, which I consider ungodly. It depends on who you talk to but ungodly hours of the night are generally 10PM-10AM. In short, hours that are at times people prefer to be sleeping, stores are generally closed, and people are too tired to function the way they do during the day.

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