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Verbal Energy

Things that happen round midnight

On the 50th anniversary of the Berlin Wall, the Monitor's language columnist suggests that English needs a better time marker for events that unfold during the night.

By Ruth Walker / August 10, 2011



In the small hours of a Sunday morning last September, I was awoken – sort of – by a horrific crash. I didn't quite reach full consciousness. Some critical faculty within, like a dozing night watchman, decided that whatever it was, it was nothing to wake "the boss" for.

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A few minutes later, however, the sirens of several emergency vehicles that seemed to be converging at the foot of my bed got my full attention.

I got up and, looking out my window, saw – almost directly below me, three stories down – a van that had been driven straight into the brick wall surrounding our property.

I also had a good view through the van's windshield of the front seat, with the dome light on and the door open, and no driver, injured or otherwise, in sight.

Mercifully, it turned out that the driver had simply opened the door and exited the van, unscathed. And the damage to our bricks has been repaired.

Fifty years ago this month the Western Allies woke up one Sunday morning to another story about a wall: Overnight, the East German government had cut telephone lines and started to build the Berlin Wall.

Here's how one history website describes it: "On August 12, 1961, the decision was made by the East German government to close the Berlin border. The next day, just minutes after midnight, East German troops erected barbed wire barricades and roadblocks." Note that: "the next day." And yet what happened, happened at night, "just minutes after midnight."

These two episodes – one of them of international historical significance, the other strictly local – are both about walls. But they have something else in common: They took place during those odd small hours of the night that we have trouble anchoring in one day of the week or another. My story of a wall coming down unfolded very early on a Sunday. But the reveling that leads people to drive vans into brick walls tends to happen Saturday nights.

English lacks a good idiom to refer to events that straddle the dividing line of midnight or, to put it another way, for events that occur when civilized people are in bed.

If the morning radio host says, "We've had two inches of rain overnight," the meaning is clear. But what about "He's got an overnight flight Tuesday"? Is that departing Tuesday or arriving Tuesday? Probably the former, but you'd have to ask to be sure.

From my days in Germany, I got used to a helpful idiom that translates "the night to Sunday" (or whatever day), meaning "Saturday night through to Sunday morning." It seems to be a journalistic usage that coexists with the wordier "night from Saturday to Sunday." Accounts in German of the events of Aug. 13, 1961, use both constructions.

There's a related issue here, too: Whether "midnight Tuesday" means 12 a.m. at the end of Tuesday evening, or 12 a.m. at the end of Monday evening.

As someone confessed to Yahoo Answers, "I am confused what constitutes as midnight?" This person is perhaps also confused about what qualifies as correct syntax.

But it's probably good to do what the travel industry tends to do, which is to avoid 12 a.m. on schedules and use 11:59 p.m. and 12:01 a.m., which are easier to anchor to specific days.

What a difference a minute makes.

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