The word second can refer to ordinal #2 (that which comes after first), or a unit of time, 1/60 of a minute. Ordinarily you might think that this is just a coincidence, but in Spanish, the word segundo also means both a second (of time) and ordinal #2, which suggests that there's some actual link between the two meanings somewhere.

So, why is there a "second" of time but not a "first"?


3 Answers 3


The English word minute in the time sense (and the various similar European words) came from Latin 'pars minuta prima' or 'first small part'; when it became necessary to subdivide even further, the obvious term was 'pars minuta secunda' which became second and its various cognates. (Best explained in Etymonline.)

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    Edwin, this is an interesting question, regardless of how trivial it is.
    – James G.
    Sep 4, 2015 at 14:53
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    That begs the question: What is the example of a non-trivial question on a site that's mainly concerned with English Language minutia?
    – WernerCD
    Sep 4, 2015 at 18:35
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    fantastic answer to a very interesting question. definitely belongs on this site.
    – user428517
    Sep 4, 2015 at 20:10
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    I've got to agree that most etymology questions here are pretty silly. This one, however, has an interesting answer that relates directly to the formation of the term, vs just the fact that someone centuries ago mispronounced another word,
    – Hot Licks
    Sep 4, 2015 at 20:14
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    I have largely stopped visiting this site because of the overwhelming number of word and prase requests. These are completely uninteresting to anyone apart from the OP: it is as if quoting from a dictionary is now an acceptable standard for an answer, and not having read a thesaurus, that for a question. I say this to emphasize the contrast with this thread, wherein the question and answer show evidence of actual wit and creativity. If anything is to be closed as "general reference", please, let the stultifying word request threads be the first victims. Sep 5, 2015 at 1:36

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I.e. primary and secondary division by 60, where one minute is 1/60th part. Minute here refers to part and originates from "minutus" meaning "made small".

The etymology is quite confusing: A minute is short for "pars minuta prima" where they've omitted "prima" meaning "primary". A "second", which is a part of a part, comes from "pars minuta secunda", where they've omitted "part".

Note how minute and second are also used as angular measurement equal to 1/60 and 1/3600 of a degree respectively. There are 60*360 = 21600 minutes and 60*60*360 = 1296000 seconds in a full rotation.

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    There is no indication in this answer of how "minute" means "first" or "primary".
    – AndyT
    Sep 4, 2015 at 14:50
  • @AndyT: True, but that was not part of the OP's question.
    – LarsH
    Sep 4, 2015 at 15:38
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    @LarsH - not in those words, no. But the question was not "what other units of time are there?". It is obvious that the OP knows what a minute is (he uses the word in his question). It is not difficult to work out that the question is about the etymology of "second" as a unit of time, and why there is no similar etymology leading to a "first" of time.
    – AndyT
    Sep 4, 2015 at 15:59
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    Actually, I interpreted this answer to mean: One over sixty to the first is the minute. One over sixty to the second is the second. Why do we use milliseconds when we can use thirds?
    – Phil
    Sep 4, 2015 at 16:20
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    @AndyT Because "minute" doesn't mean "first" or "primary", it refers to "part" (note how I italicized that), or more accurately "minutus" means "made small". As posted by the other poster, a minute is short for "pars minuta prima" where they've omitted "prima" meaning "primary". A "second", which is a part of a part, comes from "pars minuta secunda", where they've omitted "part"! This is what makes the etymology so confusing. I'm sorry if my answer was not clear for you. Sep 4, 2015 at 16:26

One sixtieth part of an hour is a minute amount of it. Similarly, one sixtieth part of a minute is a minute amount of a minute. It is of the second order of minuteness (compared to an hour), and is hence called a second.

  • Yeah, but what do you call the third second?
    – Hot Licks
    Sep 5, 2015 at 13:02
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    @HotLicks see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sexagesimal#Notation - Until at least the 18th century, 1/60 of a second was called a "tierce" or "third". There was an analogous duodecimal system for measuring length (used by Newton in Principia, etc): feet indicated by ', inches by '', and lines (1/12 inch) by '''.
    – alephzero
    Sep 5, 2015 at 14:31
  • @alephzero - That's the third minute. But yeee's answer is the third one providing the (same) explanation of "second" -- the third second.
    – Hot Licks
    Sep 5, 2015 at 17:54

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