It’s about Time!

Engraving by John Byddell of Truth, “the daughter of time” being led out of the darkness by Time, which “revealeth all things. A vomiting demon labeled hypocrisy threatens her. (Image in public domain)

It’s been more than a month since my last post in this virtual space. What have I been doing? Well, first and foremost, I moved. That took a lot of time (so many trips back and forth from the old place to the new! Ugh). As for the rest of it, I … I … don’t have any idea. I did, however get an idea: hence this post about the word time.

The word time, as I’m sure you’re well aware, can refer to many things. To make sure we’re all on the same page, I’m using the word to mean, “the period between events or during which something exists, happens, or acts; a measured or measurable interval.” (Thank you, Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language.)

Okay, so that’s how I’m using it, but where does this word come from? The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories offers the following explanation:

Old English tima, of Germanic origin, is related to tide, which it superseded in temporal senses, leaving tide to refer to the movements of the sea. The earliest of the current verb senses (dating from the late Middle English) is ‘do (something) at a particular moment.’

As usual, the (Ayto) Dictionary of Word Origins offers another opinion.

Time originally denoted ‘delimited section of existence, period.’ Its ultimate source is the Indo-European base *di- ‘cut up, divide.’ This passed in prehistoric German as *ti- (source of English tide), and addition of the suffix *-mon- produced *timon – whence English time and Swedish timme ‘hour.’ The application of the word to the more generalized, abstract notion of ‘continuous duration’ dates from the 14th century.

And as usual, both of these explanations pale in comparison to the expert information one finds in Eric Partridge’s Origins, which begins by explaining the link between tide and time.

1. The tides of the sea were so names from their occurrence at regular times: the basic sense of tide (Middle English tide, earlier tid) was ‘time,’ hence a definite time, an opportune time, as in ‘Time and tide wait for no man.’

“Time smoking a picture” (William Hogarth). Image in public domain

2. Time … is akin to Old Norse timi. It is therefore clear that, already in Old Norse and Old English, time and tide were doublets: they have the same root, but different suffixes: the Old Germanic root is *ti-, corresponding to an Indo-European root *di-, comes from Armenian ti, time, and the Sanskrit goddess Aditis (a-, ‘not’ + ditis), ‘the timeless, hence eternal, one’: perhaps also comes from Sanskrit dayate, he divides, he apportions, and Greek daiomai, I divide or apportion ….

So there you have it: from the time on the clock that divides up your day, to the tides of the ocean giveth and taketh away, to the Gods and Goddesses of divide and apportion everything, ourselves included. And to think I was just trying to come up with a clever way of apologizing for not having posted in a while. Mind blown.


Fascinating as it is, I find it interesting that none of these origin stories mentions Latin tempus, source of the English temporal and extemporaneous. Latin does rear its head, however, in the saying, “time flies,” which the Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins (FFEW&FO) describes as:

An old workhorse of a phrase that goes back at least to the Latin tempus fugit, meaning the same, which in turn was suggested by a phrase in the Roman poet Virgil’s Georgics that translates: “Irretrievable time is flying!”

The FFEW&FO also lists a few other time-related phrases worth adding to your conversational repertoire:

Time, gentlemen, please! – A British barman’s reminder that the pub will be closing.
Time heals all wounds – uttered by Hippocrates
Time wounds all heels – uttered by Frank Case (owner of the Algonquin Hotel in NYC)
Time to whistle up the dogs and piss on the fire – Cowboy slang for it’s time to go.



Dictionary of Word Origins (Ayto)
Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins
Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English
Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories
Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language





Published by Joe3

Founder of the College Park Community and Butter Lamb Reference Libraries

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