Tag Archives: time


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.

Let’s do the time Whorf again

Every so often, someone in a field such as economics comes up with something that seems to suggest that the language we use can affect how we think and even how we act. I’m not talking about obvious things (such as “How do you get 50 Canadians out of a swimming pool? You say, ‘Everyone please get out of the pool.’”). I mean what if, for instance, our grammar affected how we save for the future? What if our perception of time is conditioned by our language?

And all the linguists roll their eyes and say, “Whorf.” They’ve been down this road before. They reach for the mute button.

But what if both sides are overreacting a bit?

Read my latest article for the BBC:

Can language slow down time?