What’s The French For “Lingua Franca”?

Posted on: April 22, 2007

Have you heard of UTC? It’s “Coordinated Universal Time”, a time system which mostly maintains the illusion that there are 60×60×24 seconds in a day. It’s basically GMT with (atomic) bells on.

But nevermind that — that’s not what this post is about. The hawk-eyed amongst you may have noticed that the letters U, T and C don’t actually stand for Coordinated Universal Time; they’re in the wrong order. So what the heck do they stand for? Well, nothing.

Y’see, back in 1970 some scientists got together to figure out the details of the new time system. Some people wanted to call it CUT for coordinated universal time, and some other people wanted to call it TUC, for temps universel coordonné. In the end they couldn’t come to an agreement so they decided to call it UTC (which nobody wanted and which doesn’t stand for anything).

Some people would call that a compromise, but I’d call that bullshit. In a rational world, they’d have taken a vote and used whichever one was more popular. In a less rational world, they’d have flipped a coin and decided randomly. But in the actual world, they came up with a meaningless third option and chose that instead. I wonder if that tells us something about human nature. When faced with an opponent, we’d rather both lose than have the spoils go to the enemy. I suppose a stalemate beats a loss any day of the week.

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