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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(n.) any naturally or seasonally recurring event that provides a timeframe for living creatures

Sunset over an ocean sea view

Who doesn’t love a bit of obscure ecological vocabulary to start the day? With that in mind, the word zeitgeber popped up on HH yesterday evening:

...and so here’s a little bit more about it.

No prizes for guessing that zeitgeber is a word we owe to German. (Strictly speaking, in fact, as a German noun it should be spelled with an uppercase Z, but we’ll let that slide here.)

As we explained over on Twitter, zeitgeber literally means “time-giver” in German, but its more usual (i.e. non-literal) English translation is typically said to be something along the lines of a “synchronizer,” or something similar. Etymologically, however, that initial “zeit” might well be familiar: it’s the same root as seen in zeitgeist, the literal “spirit” of an age or era.

The term zeitgeber itself was coined in 1958 by Jürgen Aschoff, a German biologist and ecologist known as one of the founding fathers of chronobiology, the field of science concerned with the regular, cyclic behaviour of and phenomena found in all living organisms—known as “biological rhythms”—and how these are influenced by or corollate with lunar and solar time.

Aschoff’s work proved that organisms have an internalized or so-called “endogenous” body clock—but he also postulated that there must be exterior, or “exogenous” phenomena that can also have an effect on all living things. And it’s those exogenous events—like the sun rising and setting, the phases of the moon, or the changing of the seasons—that he called zeitgeber.

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