Words are my lifeblood, so I want to understand them deeply and fully–to know them and to own them. Thus, I frequently consult the Online Etymology Dictionary, a favorite site for enriching my store of words as I explore their origins and their histories. I took that path to provide a substrate for today’s Advent Word.
The entry for watch begins with these tantalizing tidbits:
Old English wæccan “keep watch, be awake,” from Proto-Germanic wakjan, from PIE root -weg,“to be strong, be lively.” Essentially the same word as Old English wacian “be or remain awake.” . . . Meaning “be vigilant” is from c. 1200. That of “to guard (someone or some place), stand guard” is late 14c. Sense of “to observe, keep under observance” is mid-15c.
And that’s just the verb! As early as 1200, we also had the noun in its related senses of vigil, observation, and guard. As early as the 1580s, our current meaning of “a small timepiece” had evolved from the mid-15th century word for “a clock to wake up sleepers.”
The surprising thing for me in this trek through history is the active nature of watching as it made its home in our language. I generally think of watching as a passive and tedious activity. We often describe the thumb-twiddling nature of tedium as “clock-watching,” and in my mind at least, even intentional vigilance is mostly being in guard for the actions of others.
Just like the etymology dictionary, the Advent lessons quickly disabuse me of that notion. I will close with an excerpt from the Gospel reading for Advent I (Mark 13:34-37) in the language of the King James Bible, which provides the clearest sense of the urgency with which we are commanded to prepare:
The Son of Man is as a man taking a far journey, who left his house, and gave authority to his servants, and to every man his work, and commanded the porter to watch. Watch ye therefore: for ye know not when the master of the house cometh, at even, or at midnight, or at the cockcrowing, or in the morning: Lest coming suddenly he find you sleeping. And what I say unto you I say unto all, Watch.