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What does 'ten of six' mean in regard to time?

As a non-native speaker, I consider a quarter past nine (9:15) and a quarter to nine (8:45) easy to understand. However every time I hear "a quarter of nine", I have to pause for a few seconds and make sure I get it right.

How did this expression come about? How to explain it? I googled and the answer to this question on Yahoo! might be wrong.

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    Google Ngrams shows that it's mainly used in the U.S. and not the U.K., and my guess is that it's regional. It sounds fine to me, but I believe I grew up hearing it from my mother (which would mean it's used in the Midwest). The Yahoo answer is wrong; "a quarter of nine" means 8:45. – Peter Shor Sep 7 '11 at 12:23
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    Mentally place the word 'short' and hear it as a 'quarter short of nine', it'll not rankle as much. – Autoresponder Sep 7 '11 at 12:41
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  • To confirm what @Peter said - I'm a UK native and have never heard of "a quarter of.." as a time reference – Waggers Sep 7 '11 at 12:58
  • @user11761: I'd prefer "shy of" to "short of," but it's ultimately a matter of taste. – Robusto Sep 7 '11 at 12:59

Searching Google books shortly after 1800 (the time the phrase "quarter of" started coming into use in the U.S.), I find several usages of

It wanted a quarter of ten.

which makes more sense than just "quarter of ten", but is a cumbersome enough expression that one can see how it would be shortened to "quarter of ten". I didn't check all these books, but the one I did was published in the U.S.

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