Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

In what seems like at least half her novels, Agatha Christie writes that one character waits for a "minute or two." At first I thought that these characters were actually sitting there and pondering, mid-conversation for a full 120 seconds while the other character was staring at them expectantly. However, this phrase has also been used in situations of high urgency, so I'm starting to think that "minute" is actually just being used to represent a pregnant pause.

Tommy became restive. The conversation he had overheard had stimulated his curiosity. He felt that, by hook or by crook, he must hear more.

There was no sound from below, and it did not seem likely that the doorkeeper would come upstairs. After listening intently for a minute or two, he put his head round the curtain.

In this passage, Tommy is considering moving closer to eavesdrop. Waiting for a full minute would sort of defeat the purpose!

My questions are:

Am I right about this meaning "a moment" rather than "60-120 seconds"?

Was this something actually used by many writers or speakers at time, or is it peculiar to Christie? (who, in my opinion, writes some of the most incredible plots and characters, but her prose feels a bit amateurish, which might explain a "mistake" like this.)

When and why did this usage fall out of use?

Edit: I don't agree that "He waited for a minute or two" is the same case as "Give me a minute."

For example, if someone expected to take another 10 seconds to finish something, they might tell you "Give me a minute", but more likely, "give me a second." However, they would most certainly not say "Give me a minute or two" because that strongly suggests from close to a minute to a few minutes.

In addition, I am asking much more about the specific phrase "minute or two", which she uses exclusively. Characters never wait for "a minute" or "about a minute."

share|improve this question
    
Does this help at all? –  simchona Sep 10 '11 at 17:27
3  
This usage is out of use? That's news to me. –  Peter Shor Sep 10 '11 at 17:31
2  
Isn't "give me a minute!" a standard, modern and accepted expression? –  Alenanno Sep 10 '11 at 17:42
    
@simchona I don't think it's the same issue. "A minute" almost never means a few seconds, and see my notes above for a few clarifications. –  Jeremy Sep 11 '11 at 0:59
    
@Jeremy: what evidence do you have that "a minute" almost never means a few seconds? If I tell somebody "just a minute", I never look at my stopwatch and count out 60 seconds before getting back to whoever I'm talking to. –  Peter Shor Sep 11 '11 at 4:05

1 Answer 1

It seems plausible, if not exactly likely, that Tommy might want to wait for a full 60-120 seconds; in context, he's doing something sneaky, and because he presumably doesn't want to get caught, he would be justified in being cautious.

That aside, your assumption that "minute" isn't a definite amount of time seems fair. And the use of "minute" would be colloquial, not amateurish or mistaken.

This ngram shows that the use of "moment" was declining while Christie was writing, and has declined markedly since her death. If anything, her substitution of "minute" for "moment" seems to anticipate a broader trend in the language.

According to the OED, as early as 1393, a "minute" was

The space of a minute (also minute while); a short space of time, an instant, a moment.

If usage of minute for moment was acceptable then, I think it's safe to assume it was fairly standard in Christie's time.

share|improve this answer
    
And I would say still common in British English –  Mark Sep 11 '11 at 9:51
    
In American English, too! –  ect Sep 15 '11 at 1:53

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.