Early Bird Special

On turning the clocks back

Unless you live in Hawaii, Puerto Rico, most of Arizona, or off the grid with sundials, you turned your clocks back an hour yesterday, in the annual return to standard time. (Nowadays, lots of clocks turn themselves back, so it’s actually less work than it used to be.)

The period that just ended is daylight saving time. Not daylight savings, though many people and about a third of the news articles in the past week called it that. And its history is almost as confusing as the feeling you have when you think others are off by an hour, but it’s really only you.

We have Benjamin Franklin to thank for that: In 1784, when he was ambassador to France, he wrote the Journal of Paris suggesting that thousands could be saved in oil and candle costs if clocks were set forward when more light was available. People would be up earlier, go to bed earlier, and thus use less lighting fuel, he reasoned.

In the United States, Congress codified railroad “standard time” and created daylight saving time in 1918. But farmers and people in the western portions of the time zones, outraged that dawn was so “late,” forced the repeal of national daylight saving time the next year, though some local jurisdictions kept it. (Imagine how confusing that was.) National daylight saving time was re-established to save energy during World War II, after which it again reverted to local authority.

In 1966, Congress standardized the dates for daylight saving time, again with opt-out provisions, but started it as early as January during the energy crisis of the mid-70s. In 1986 it was re-standardized, beginning on the first Sunday in April and ending on the last Sunday in October. The dates changed again in 2007, to the second Sunday in March until the first Sunday in November.

The rationale has always been to save money or energy by allowing more daylight during working hours. But it’s odd that we “save” daylight when more daylight is available—spring to fall—rather than during “standard” time, fall through winter, when the days are shorter. In standard time, people have more daylight earlier in their days, even though it means they will burn more oil and candles when they get home, since sunset comes even before the dinner hour. In some ways it would make more sense to call the shorter daylight period “daylight saving time,” not the longer one.

But this column is supposed to shed light on language, not history. So why is it “daylight saving time” and not “daylight savings time”?

“Savings” is often used as a noun: “My savings are gone, thanks to the stock market.” “Saving,” though, is also a noun: “The time change will result in a saving of energy.”

This time, though, “saving” is an adjective, in combination with “daylight.” They are both modifying “time,” the way “labor-saving” is an adjectival combination modifying “device.” There’s no hyphen connecting “daylight” and “saving” because, well, because there isn’t.

Many of you will be quick to point out that “savings” is probably used more frequently as an adjective than as a noun—“savings bond,” “savings account,” etc.—which still doesn’t explain why it’s “saving time” instead of “savings time.”

Perhaps Congress just wanted to save that last “s,” as well as daylight.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.