Tag Archives: tide


In the Bay of Fundy, they have a sand sculpture competition. You may have heard of the tide in the Bay of Fundy: the water level changes by up to 15 metres (50 feet). It’s quite impressive – boats go from floating at a dock to resting on their keels well below, or vice versa. If you start building a sand sculpture there when the tide is out, you have no more than six hours before the tide will come in. You don’t want to be there at the time, and your sculpture is likely to face a sea-change once the tide floods it. 

Time and tide wait for no one, as the saying goes. In fact, it has been said many ways by many people: Robert Burns wrote “Nae man can tether time or tide” in 1791; William Somerville wrote “Time and tide for no man stay” in 1779; Andrew Barton wrote “time and tide waits for no one” in 1767; Robert Greene wrote “Time nor tide tarrieth no man” in 1592; and on and on, changing with the times. Time and tide is an idiomatic collocation in English, and one that, when it first arose (by the 1200s), was a deliberately redundant reduplication – almost like, say, vermin and varmints or creatures and critters – because tide was (as it rarely is now) a synonym for time.

And not just a synonym. It’s a sibling – a twin, even, though separated long ago. Back in Proto-Indo-European, there was a root that has been reconstructed as *deh₂y- having to do with sharing or dividing. It divided (we believe) into a few derived forms, including *déh₂itis, a noun meaning ‘period of time’, which descended to Proto-Germanic tīdiz, and *déh₂i-mō, which descended to Proto-Germanic tīmô (incidentally, cognate with Greek δαίμων, daemon). 

You can guess how tīmô developed: it became our time and several similar words in Scandinavian languages (such as Icelandic tími). It is not, by the way, related to Latin tempus ‘time’, which came from a root meaning ‘stretch’ or one meaning ‘cut’ (we’re not sure which). 

As for tīdiz, it became tide and a whole bunch of words meaning ‘time’ in other Germanic languages: Dutch tijd, for instance, Icelandic tíð, German zeit – you can see the sea-changes: the final consonant could become devoiced (as in German or Dutch – the d in tijd is said like “t”) or fricated (as in Icelandic, where ð represents the same sound as we make at the start of this); the first consonant could be affricated (as in German, where z is said like “ts”).

OK, but how did it go from ‘time’ to, well, ‘tide’ in sense? First it was used to refer to a particular time of day or year – a recurring time, as we still sometimes see or hear in Christmastide or Eastertide, or eventide or noontide. Some other Germanic languages started using a sibling form to refer to what English called the ebb and flood of the sea, and this usage of tide caught on in English in the 1300s. And most of the other uses fell off over time – or, I should say, time prevailed over them.

But there are still a few uses that relate more to time generally, or to opportune or unavoidable moments, or to occurrences. And there are words derived from tide. There’s betide, meaning ‘happen to’, as in woe betide. There’s tidings, which means ‘news’, as in things that have happened at the time. And there’s one quite popular derived form that showed up first in the 1300s meaning ‘timely’, then came to mean ‘opportune’ or ‘in good condition’, and gradually broadened in usage to be just a synonym for ‘orderly’. The word is not tidely, as you might expect by analogy with timely; no, that would be too tidy. Or, should I say, it would not be tidy enough – for the word is tidy.

Well. The tide might seem tidy, since it washes things away, but it’s hard to say – from the perspective of a sand sculptor, for instance – that it makes them more orderly. And when it ebbs, it often leaves a mess behind. Just like the tides of language change.


“Glad tidings we bring… to you and your thing!…”

Somehow halfway through that line everyone else had suddenly begun to sing much more quietly and my voice was rather… salient. There may have been a glance or two in my direction. Oh, come on, people, it’s a carol sing! Make merry! Play around a bit! Glad tidings, you know?

Tidings is one of the classic Christmas words, right up there with hark. It does get used in other places – there’s a wine magazine that used to be called Wine Tidings (it’s now Quench) – but most of its great cultural associations have to do with Christmas, a prime vector being the King James Version rendition of Luke 2:10: “And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” From that it spread to carols such as “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” (quoted above) and “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen” (“O, tidings of comfort and joy”), and on to assorted cultural references.

What, exactly, are (is? are? both conjugations are used in literature) tidings? In short, they are (it is) news. But not just any news! Oh, no, no. This is a word with poetical and Biblical associations, which means that the news is classic, timeless, historic, epic, important, portentous… A friend who says “I am sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings” is drawing on that tone, probably for self-consciously pompous effect; it would seem too self-important to use for a death or other actual grave event, but it would be quite suitable for a fallen soufflé or a dearth of chocolate or the discovery that the liquor store is quite out of the preferred brand of Cognac for mixing with the expensive eggnog. (Martell, by the way.)

All of which may befall us sooner or later; time and tide happen to us all. And yes, that tide is tied to this tidings. The ancient root from which they both spring is a Germanic stem referring to happenings, befallings, incidents and accidents; the sense of hints and allegations – the news of the incidents and accidents – comes from that. As the tide happens to come in and go out, and the tides of the time turn, and as other things betide us all, we get the tidings, just as the new things that occur are reported as the news. And yes, you can also have a singular tiding, but usually we get the plural (though, as I have said, sometimes it’s treated as a singular, as news is); it seems that just one tiding is not often enough to tide us over.

So when an advent for the ages is reported, of course it’s tidings. But of great joy, people! Even if we’re in an Estonian Lutheran church basement! We were singing our carols just downstairs from where Aina and I had gotten married a mere few years earlier, and I was going to do my thing, even if that’s news to some of you.