Saturday, 14 February 2009

Post#114 The Mangled Meridian (AM versus PM)

There's been an advertisement running as part of a government campaign to discourage the sort of reflexive violence that's seen several deaths in recent years in this town. It's called the "One Punch Syndrome". Somebody is affronted and responds with a powerful single punch which results in the death of the recipient. The advertisement shows a couple of blokes out on the town at night and imbibing plenty of alcohol while failing to succeed in their passes at women. One of them is then bumped into in the street and responds with a punch that kills the careless passerby. In a second version of the ad which usually runs in a slot soon after the first, he's seen restraining his temper and walking away.

The advertisement is punctuated with time calls as the characters work their way through the grog and the unsympathetic females. It begins with something like "9:00 PM" and proceeds through "10:00 PM" and "11:00 PM" until the last which is "12:00 AM". This didn't strike my eye until I'd watched it a couple of times. Then I thought, "12:00 AM? Isn't that midday?" Yet it's obviously meant to be midnight when the fatal punch is/isn't thrown.

The advertisement ends with the text and voiceover which tells the viewer that the authorising party is the Government of Western Australia. I laughed at that and said, "So it's official; the government can't tell the time." I remembered that I'd also seen a bus timetable issued under the auspices of the Public Transport Authority of W.A. in which 12:00 midnight is colour-coded along with other times in the schedule to indicate that it's an "AM" time.

A lot of people seemed to be making this mistake when I started looking for it. Behind the all-purpose "twelve o'clock" or "midnight" or "midday" was a secret ignorance afflicting radio and television presenters, print journalists and every other kind of person who should know.

What they don't seem to get is that the Latin expressions for which AM and PM stand are describing time with respect to the progress of the sun across the sky. (Okay, we know that it's actually the progress of the sky past the sun, but the expression has its origins in the commonplace appearance of things, not Copernicanism.)

AM stands for ante meridiem and PM for post meridiem. This Wikipedia article goes into quite a bit of confused detail on the subject and the contributing editors have fallen into a trap in saying that the expression "12:00 AM" is "illogical". It's claimed there that the English translation of AM is "before noon". I'd say it's a misleading translation. To encompass the semantic content of the Latin phrase you would have to say "n th hour passed before noon". This means that you're counting the hours as they pass before noon. Thus: 1:00 AM is the first hour passed before noon; 2:00 AM is the second hour passed before noon and so on. 12:00 AM can then be clearly understood as telling us that that the twelfth hour before noon has passed. The PM times are then easily seen to be "hours passed after noon". No illogicality at all. (As Michael Gorey said to me in a comment on his blog a while back, Wikipedia is not always right. I should know, I've tried to contribute to it and given up in disgust.)

It's the little things like that which indicate a slippage in understanding of very basic things and a lack of fluency in our culture's use of its principal language. Like the endless battling on with "Two thous-and and..." every time the year is named instead of "Twenty-oh-whatever". Can these numb-nuts keep on all the way to the end of the century? I wouldn't bet against them.


Michael said...

Welcome back! As an editor, whenever I see 12am or 12pm I change it to midnight or noon to avoid confusion.

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