This might make you feel differently about your morning alarm: the origins of ‘alarm’
It’s not a great start to the day, is it – waking up to the alarm clock? Even the most dutiful morning person will likely admit that being dragged unwillingly out of the warm depths of sleep is discouraging, disappointing, and undignified, enough to ruin any piece of music that you might choose as an alarm tone. If you choose your favorite song, it’ll soon become your least favorite. If you keep the factory-set melody, composed and group-tested to evoke cheerful feelings, you’ll soon hear its cheerfulness as a cruel form of mockery. I’m willing to admit that I adopted a cat that I was fostering in part because he likes to wake me up, demanding food, before my alarm is usually set to go off, and I prefer waking with the feeling of claws in my face to waking with a merry song ringing in my ears.
Not to oversell ourselves at Oxford Dictionaries, but the history of language may help to make your morning a little easier. It can’t end the necessity of waking to an alarm, but it can at least restore to the process a little grandeur.
The English word alarm had its start in the Middle French à l’arme (and alarme) and the Italian all’arme, both of which terms had the translation, ‘to arms!’. Shakespeare used an early form of the word in English, alarum, retaining in all his usages the word’s martial meaning: a call for weapons to be drawn, a call for readiness in the face of danger. But he also restricted its usage to a musical context: soldiers with trumpets and drums played the alarum as a musical signal to soldiers with arms:
A flourish, trumpets! Strike alarum, drums!
Let not the heavens hear these tell-tale women
Rail on the Lord’s anointed. Strike, I say!
(Richard III, 4.4.149-51)
According to the music historian Erika Honisch, these sounds migrated from the battlefield to palaces, town squares, and churches, as composers began to use the word l’arma (taken again from all’arme) to instruct trumpets and drums to play a fanfare. A king entering a city, or attending church during a political summit, might be greeted by improvised patterns of military calls that showed off the military capabilities of the players. Indeed, she says, because trumpets and drums were military instruments, a royal household would pay its trumpeters and drummers out of different funds from the rest of the musicians.
By the mid-17th century, speakers of English were using the term alarm to refer to a clock mechanism that strikes a fanfare. Italians preferred the term sveglia, and the French preferred reveil-matin, both terms that likewise had military dimensions. But popular usage would grow increasingly domestic. In 1713, the French composer François Couperin wrote a charming composition called ‘Le reveil-matin’, or ‘the alarm clock’ (literally, ‘the matin bell’), which imitates, as Honisch notes, not a military call to arms, but a mundane civilian wake-up call. (In this recording, you can hear the alarm ‘sound’ at 0:22.)
Perhaps this knowledge will make you feel a little better about getting up to the sound of your alarm: TO ARMS! The world is calling on you to fight the good fight! Or at least you can commiserate with the American composer Irving Berlin, who brought his experience in the military to his writing of the 1918 classic, ‘Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning.’
(The cat’s name is Aaron Purr, by the way, and he is a delight.)