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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(n.) a period of time equal to 1/60th of the day, or approximately 24 minutes

Hidden away in the dictionary, there’s quite a robust vocabulary of time that we don’t often call upon—from the original moment (a period of 90 seconds) to the nychtemeron (a period of one night plus one day), punct (15 minutes) and nundine (nine days). But some of the overlooked units are remarkably precise: case in point, the ghurry, a period of 24 minutes.

If you think that doesn’t look like an inherently English word, then you’d be right. Ghurry is an anglicized version of ghari, a Hindi word for a water clock.

In the Middle Ages, all kinds of weird and wonderful contraptions were used to keep track of time, of which the Indian ghari was one of the simplest. It comprised a large metal or wooden bowl, pierced all around with several small holes. This bowl would then be placed into a larger basin full of water, and as the water gradually poured into the bowl through the holes in its sides, it would slowly sink to the bottom of the basin.

The entire process from start to finish took a fixed amount of time, governed by the size and arrangement of the holes in the bowl’s sides. Typically, it took around 24 minutes—and as a result, it became standard practice to assume that there were 60 ghurries in a single day.

That word was imported into English via European travellers and tradespeople in the Indian subcontinent in the early 1600s. For a time, it remained well-known enough a word to be used more generally: the Oxford English Dictionary records that in the nineteenth century, a ghurry was also a metal plate or chime on which the hour could be rung, and was even used as a suitably exotic-sounding byword for any clock or timepiece whatsoever. Since the turn of the century, however, the word has steadily fallen out of common use, and remains something of a rarity today.

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