“If by Godot I had meant God I would have said God, and not Godot.”*

*Samuel Beckett.

Carol singing for charity on railway stations has become something of an endangered species in recent seasons, owing to another five lettered phenomenon beginning with C. In 1835, it was the Municipal Corporations Act which cut a swathe through the musical civic officers known as “waits”. These had historically been the town watchmen who had patrolled by night, using a musical instrument to announce their presence. Their favoured instrument, also known as the wait-pipe, was the shawm:

By the seventeenth century, the musical prowess of the waits, who were also employed at ceremonial events, had become a matter of pride. Although their post was abolished as a part of nineteenth century municipal reforms, the wandering midwinter groups of nocturnal carol singers continued to be known in towns and villages as the Christmas Waits.

A history of the noun is given by the Online Etymology Dictionary:

early 13c., “a watcher, onlooker,” from Old North French wait (Old French gait “look-out, watch, sentry”), from Old North French waitier (Old French gaitier; see wait (v.)). Compare Old High German wahta, German Wacht “a watchman.” From late 14c. as “an ambush, a trap” (as in lie in wait). From 1855 as “time occupied in waiting;” 1873 as “an act of waiting.” From the sense “civic employee responsible for signaling the hour or an alarm by sounding on a trumpet, etc.” comes the old sense “town musicians” (mid-15c.).

In case you’re wondering (and I did), here’s Steve Baker, Blogger at LetsRunWithIt.com
Originally Answered: When watches and clocks were invented, how did the inventor set the correct time?

“Initially, they didn’t. Every town and village had its own “time-zone” – people worked by the rising and setting of the sun. They already had water clocks and sundials of course. The earliest clocks were most often huge ungainly things that were too expensive for a single individual to own. They’d be placed into church towers and other prominent locations and set to the local “time zone” for that place. It was not until the invention of rail travel – when it became necessary to synchronize time between towns so that train time tables could be built that the issue of standardizing time came about.”

I find it interesting that it’s twenty years after the Municipal Corporations Act that the noun has come to represent a period of time rather than a person. As far as the verb is concerned, it’s not until the late fourteenth century that waiting is anything less than an ambush:

c. 1200, “to watch with hostile intent, lie in wait for, plot against,” from Anglo-French and Old North French waitier “to watch” (Old French gaitier “defend, watch out, be on one’s guard; lie in wait for;” Modern French guetter), from Frankish *wahton or another Germanic source, from Proto-Germanic *waht– (source also of Dutch wacht “a watching,” Old High German wahten, German wachten “to watch, to guard;” Old High German wahhon “to watch, be awake,” Old English wacian “to be awake”), from PIE root *weg- “to be strong, be lively.” General sense of “remain in some place” is from late 14c.; that of “to see to it that something occurs” is late 14c. Meaning “to stand by in attendance on” is late 14c.; specific sense of “serve as an attendant at a table” is from 1560s. Related: Waited; waiting.

I’ve suddenly remembered a spontaneous joke worthy of a Christmas cracker. I was in the second year of secondary school, and as that was a long time ago, we still distinguished between masculine and feminine in occupational titles. The English teacher offered us “tiger/tigress, actor/actress, waiter/waitress…”. With perfect timing, the wag at the back added: “Mat/mattress, Miss!”.

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