clep·​sy·​dra ˈklep-sə-drə How to pronounce clepsydra (audio)
plural clepsydras or clepsydrae ˈklep-sə-ˌdrē How to pronounce clepsydra (audio)

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In ancient times the sun was used to measure time during the day, but sundials weren't much help after dark, so peoples around the world invented clocks that used dripping water to mark the hours. In one kind of water clock, possibly invented by the Chaldeans, a vessel was filled with water that was allowed to escape through a hole. The vessel's inside was marked with graduated lines, and the time was read by measuring the level of the remaining water. The ancient Greeks called their water clocks "klepsydra" ("water thief"), which comes from "kleptein" ("to steal") and "hydōr" ("water"). English speakers stole "clepsydra" from the Greeks in the 16th century, but actual water clocks have become increasingly rare.

Examples of clepsydra in a Sentence

Recent Examples on the Web Time is kept with a clepsydra, an antique clock consisting of a coconut shell with a hole in it floating in a bucket of water. Paul Salopek, History & Culture, 4 Dec. 2020

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'clepsydra.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History


Latin, from Greek klepsydra, from kleptein to steal + hydōr water — more at klepto-, water

First Known Use

1580, in the meaning defined above

Time Traveler
The first known use of clepsydra was in 1580


Dictionary Entries Near clepsydra

Cite this Entry

“Clepsydra.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 28 Feb. 2024.

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