What is the origin of the term wee hours? (Also small hours)

Wee hours the early hours of the morning after midnight. (Oxford Dictionary of English)

I also looked at Merriam, the Free Dictionary and Wiktionary. None offer a etymology of the phrase.

The Times of India claim to, but don't :

Wee hours mean the early hours of a day, or the period immediately after midnight. They are called so because the word 'wee' in present-day English means 'very small or tiny'. As these hours are the beginning of the new day they came to be referred to as the wee hours.

That comment fails to explain why being early should equate to small.

My guess

Hours have not always been consistent lengths of time. A day used to be divided into two twelve hour periods, like today, but unlike today, they were not of even lengths: the day (sunrise to sunset) was twelve hours and the night (sunset to sunrise) was twelve hours.

This meant that in the summer day hours were longer than night hours, and in the winter night hours were longer than day. In the summertime the hours after midnight (the wee/small hours) were smaller than the day hours. However this would mean that wee hours only refers to night in the summer; in the winter wee hours should refer to the daytime.

I think you're strongly overestimating how old that phrase is, if you think it is explained by ancient time-keeping standards.

The real answer is quite simple, and I'll quote from the OED:

"the wee (small) hours = small hours":
"The early hours after midnight, denoted by the small numbers, one, two, etc."

And as you said, 'wee' is used as 'small'. Both idioms have recorded use in the 18th century, according the OED.

  • 1
    It would be clearer to say that you're quoting the OED's definition of small hours. – Knotell Jan 16 '17 at 17:53
  • The phrase small hours in English only goes back to 1820 or so, but I didn't know if we adopted it from another language that did go farther back – Unrelated Jan 19 '17 at 17:59
  • 3
    I don't see what is still unclear. 'Wee' means 'small', but you're not asking about the etymology for 'wee'. 'Wee hours' is therefore synonymous to 'small hours', which refers to the small (i.e. low) numbers for those first hours after midnight. There is no 'etymology' in that sense, as it doesn't seem to have evolved from anything. And while I seem to have misremembered the period 'wee hours' started to be used (which is in de the 19th century), 'small hours' has been in use since the first half of the 18th century, according to the OED. – HenryJekyll1886 Jan 20 '17 at 20:34

According to Etymonline the expression is from the Scottish expression "wee sma' hours" probably referring to the small number that are used to refer to them (1/2/3 o'clock) as in small hours.

  • Wee hours is attested by 1891, from Scot. wee sma' hours (1787, Burns)

Note also the Scottish usage of "wee" in suggesting the idea of a "short time":

  • (mainly Scot) a short time (esp in the phrase bide a wee.)

From: Dictionary.com

That comment fails to explain why being early should equate to small.

Are you perhaps from a culture that uses the 12-hour format (AM/PM)?

Because if you use a 24-hour format, the early morning has the (numerically) smallest hours.

00 01 02 03 04 05 06 07 08 09 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23

Althought it is a bit subjective where the line is drawn for "wee" hours (it means "very early" without providing an objective definition, it's based on context), this does show that the early hours are represented by the smallest numbers.

  • It's frequently the wee hours of the morning, which works even in 12-hour notation (which was, after all, fairly ubiquitous in the 18th century when the phrase is first attested from). – Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 7 '17 at 15:16
  • @JanusBahsJacquet: But in 12-hour format, both 5:00AM and 5:00PM are numerically small numbers. OP not understanding the relation between "early" and "small" hours seems (to me) to originate from his currently used time format, not the time format that was historically used when the phrase was first coined. – Flater Aug 7 '17 at 15:23

Your Answer

 
discard

By clicking "Post Your Answer", you acknowledge that you have read our updated terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy, and that your continued use of the website is subject to these policies.

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