By Barbara McAllister
Word of the Day: O’clock
The reason we say the hour followed by “o’clock,” as in “one o’clock” goes all the way back to the days of the 14th century, when the town crier strolled through towns announcing the time. To distinguish that the hour was read from a clock rather than a sundial, the crier would say, “It is four of the clock.” Eventually, a century or two later, it just became “o’clock.” Peasants during Medieval times did not have a great need to know the exact hour, as their days were divided by the moving sun. But time was important to monastic communities in order to maintain their daily cycle of communal prayers. The town crier had other important functions as well. Criers kept the townspeople informed of the latest news and proclamations in a time when most of the population was illiterate. It was also the crier’s duty to take the poor to the workhouse, put wrongdoers in the public stocks, read the charges at public hangings and even help cut the body down afterwards.
Town criers were appointed by the mayor or lord of the manor and were protected by law. Anything they did was done in the name of the monarch, meaning to harm a town crier was a treasonous act, a necessary safeguard for the messenger of unpopular proclamations. Job requisites included the ability to read, a loud voice and a commanding presence.
To get attention, the traditional crier would ring a bell and yell “Oyez oyez,” (pronounced ‘oh yay’) from the French that basically means “hear ye.” It is still used today by court officers to command silence and attention. Town criers remain in existence. They are officers of a royal court or public authority who make public pronouncements as required. When Kate Middleton, the duchess of Cambridge, gave birth in April 2018, a town crier was on hand to shout “oyez, oyez” and announce the royal birth. Another legacy of the town crier is seen in the name of modern newspapers. When the crier finished reading aloud from the written document, he nailed it to the door post of a local establishment where crowds gathered, for the benefit of the few who could read. This is said to be the basis of why many modern newspapers are called The Post.