This is a rather ancient expression for asking the time. You might see it in a Shakespeare play.
I woke up thinking about Time this morning, specifically how to tell the time.
When I was young, I was taught to say “Do you have the time please?” when enquiring of an adult. Telling the time was something I remember learning from a very young age. A wooden clock face, with moving hands, and coloured numbers. My Mum asking me constantly, “If the big hand is on-, and the small hand is on-, what time is it? She would place the hands close together around the dial, explaining “This is a quarter-past, this is half-past”, and so on.
By the time I was in the ‘big school’, (juniors) it was taken for granted that I could tell the time. Every classroom had a big clock on the wall, as well as one in every corridor, and in the school entrance. Time was important of course. We had to be in school by a certain time, go for breaks and lunch at other times, and we all soon learned the time that school finished for the day. I was too young to be given a watch. Rough play and football games would almost certainly have resulted in it being damaged or destroyed, and watches were expensive, in 1959.
In central London, there was no shortage of clocks to see what the time was. Many churches had four clock faces, as did the local Town Hall, most other public buildings, and lots of shops, who used the clocks outside to double as advertising their name. Between my school and home, I could probably have seen the time easily, at least five or six times. Once at secondary school, I got a watch, given as a treasured present for a birthday, or perhaps at Christmas. It was mechanical of course, with an audible tick, and it had to be wound up every night, when I went to bed. Later on, I was given a more stylish example, with a date function visible under a magnified section of the glass face.
By the time I was 15, I had to get two trains to go to school, so time became more important than ever. I was bought an alarm clock, to make sure I got up in time; it had an incredibly loud tick, luminous numbers and hands, and two jangling bells on top. Once washed and dressed, on went the wristwatch, checking that I was in time for the train. As I approached the station, the large platform clock became visible, and I would check my watch against it, in case there was a minute or two difference. When I left school and started work, that routine continued for a while, as I soon discovered than employers do not like their staff turning up late. Technology was moving on with me, and watches now had batteries, and no longer needed to be wound up. But I liked my old watch, so kept winding it happily.
Not long after that, I saw my first digital watch. A clunky, black-plastic affair made by Casio, with red numbers telling the time. I thought it looked awful, and stuck with my conventional leather-strap watch. Those new digital watches soon became so common, they were giving them away at petrol stations if you filled up, or you could buy them for next to nothing, even in street markets. But I saw a real issue. They had no hands. You looked at the red or blue numbers, and they showed the time in a digital format, such as 3:10. You could press a button on the side, and the date would appear, usually the wrong (American) way round, like 11/23.
Much later, I realised the full impact of this change. Young people were no longer learning how to tell the time. The big clocks on public buildings and shops were not corrected anymore, and many were left showing the same time forever. Clocks in schools and offices were changed to digital displays in the main, and not long after, the station clocks were replaced with digital alternatives too. But all this was nothing, once the mobile phone achieved its modern popularity. All phones can be set to show the time, in a digital format. Watches became redundant, for those with phones. Car clocks became linked to DAB radios, and no longer had hands either. With the exception of the iconic clock known as Big Ben, there were hardly any hands on anything that told the correct time. Digital time-keeping had arrived, on everything from a microwave oven, to the central heating controller.
Generations of people have grown up not knowing something as simple as how to tell the time by looking at a clock face.
I don’t know about you, but I think that’s very sad.