About Time: Idioms About Time


In the comments below please post, in your native language, or a non-English language in which you are fluent:

  1. how you would ask someone what time it is, and the literal word-for-word translation into English
  2. how you would ask someone where you are and the literal word-for-word translation into English

I wonder if I should stop being surprised when topics I’ve discussed separately with separate people all start to relate. On Monday I talked about idioms in ECE2524 and made some comparisons between idioms in programming languages to idioms in spoken languages. As I thought about examples of idioms I noticed there were quite a lot about time:

  • on time
  • about time
  • in time
  • next time

just to name a few (I’ve somewhat intentionally left out more complex examples like “a watched pot never boils”, “better late than never”, etc.). Today in vtclis13 we discussed McCloud’s “Time Frames”, a comic that explores the various ways time and motion are represented in comics. Inevitably we talked about the different ways of talking about and perceiving time, from the relativistic physical properties of the dimension, to our own personal perception of the passage of time, and how in both cases the rate of time can change based on the environment. Time is such a funny thing. We often talk about it as if we know what we’re talking about and we take various metrics for granted: In the U.S. what is it about taking 16 trips around the sun that makes someone ready to drive a car? 2 more orbits and we’re deemed ready to vote, and after a total of 21 orbits, after we have been on the Earth as it has traveled through about 19,740,000,000 kilometers relative to the sun, we are legally able to purchase alcohol.

But if Einstein’s forays into relativity have taught us anything it is that nothing about time is absolute as we generally have an intuition for. And so I became curious about the idioms we use to talk about time and how they differ from culture to culture, language to language. Dr. C put my thought into a question: “Are idioms about time especially diverse?”. And so, through this little survey, I would like to explore that question by gathering some time idioms in the comments section, please refer back to the first paragraph for specific instructions!

About Time

Reading the “Time Frames” comic about depicting time in comics made me think about Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos in which he uses several metaphors and visualizations to help explain the nature of this thing we call time. We tend to think we know what “now” is, and think of it as a snapshot of the current state of the world. That model suffices in our day-to-day lives quite nicely, but it isn’t a very good model of the concept of time on a universe-sized scale. Einstein’s famous Theory of relativity states that time and space are closely related, and that perception of both time and space is relative to the observer. The concept of “now” is also relative. Greene uses the metaphor of a loaf of bread, the long axis representing time, and a “slice” of the loaf representing an instant in time across a 2D universe. The angle at which the bread is sliced depends on an observer’s relative motion, with a maximum angle of 45 degrees corresponding to a maximum velocity of the speed of light. Two observers, Bob and Alice at different relative velocities would have slices at different angles, and so their “now” slices would intersect at some line in space. In Bob’s “now” some events in Alice’s “now” haven’t happened yet, they are in Bob’s “future”, while others are in Bob’s “past”. Time is an elusive concept, just when we think we know what we’re talking about we get hit with something like “my ‘now’ isn’t the same as your ‘now'”. It’s no wonder there are so many ways to depict its passage in the comic medium!

On a slightly related tangent, the medium used can have some interesting affects on our perception of time and motion. In this video, recorded at 25 frames per second, a stream of falling water appears to freeze in time, or even flow backwards, when it interacts with sound waves at or near 25Hz. It’s not really an optical illusion, more of a media illusion.