We humans may be the only animals on this planet that are aware of time. In fact, humans are more than a little freaky about time. We have been fascinated and even obsessed with it for a good long while now.
There’s archaeological evidence that the Babylonians and Egyptians began to measure time about 5,000 years ago. That development in human thought-constructing was probably built on a long, long line of other previously thunk thoughts and concepts.
Some people say that our stabs at measuring time may have actually helped to create it. Whatever.
Trying to separate out the thought concepts that resulted when humans ruminated and pondered about clock-time from the rest of our alternative perceptions of time was interesting.
TURNING THE POET LOOSE
I finally hit on the idea of checking out the idioms we’ve developed about time.
It occurred to me that idioms are actually mini-poems. They are like clichés – once-clever little groupings of words that are now widely used because a lot of people have already used them to communicate larger ideas than the literal meanings of the actual individual words.
Every idiom, like every cliché, has a backstory. They are all established by common usage. A lot of people liked them and passed them around among themselves and the accumulated meanings and nuances of these phrases grew.
Every language has time idioms. Check it out yourself, if you like. There are a lot of them around, embedded in our everyday languages.
A TIMELY STORY
I’m going to tell you a fairy tale sprinkled with a bunch of time idioms that are related to how we postmodern industrial sorts perceive time. (It is, like all of my fictions and illusions, based on a true story.)
Once upon a time, nobody actually measured time. Things happened, of course, but like every other animal in the world, humans lived in an “eternal now.”
Early humans had no “time on their hands,” which also meant they had:
- no spare time or free time or down time
- no short or long or limited time
- no time to bide
- no time to do or serve or pass
- no time to keep or give or take
- no time to lose or to lose track of
- no time to find
- no time to manage or master
- no time to waste or squander
- no time to borrow
- no time to make or to make up
- no time to spend or save or invest
- no time to kill
- no time to race against
- no time to arrive in the nick of
- no time to be on or off or out of
- no time to get ahead or behind of
The amorphous time our ancestors lived back when we were feral creatures with a lot fewer words was not the “time is of the essence” variety that came along later.
Time had not yet become an intrinsic and necessary factor in the completion of some cooperative or group project or trade agreement. Time had not yet become equated with money.
Instead, the time our ancestors lived could be described as “time at large.” Things did need to get done, but the sense of urgency and of important, unmet deadlines were often missing.
WELL, LOOK AT THAT!
Did you notice?
All of the story that I’ve told so far is laden with an inordinate number of time idioms. I’m telling this tale in just one language, but the number of different time idioms I’ve used in the telling of it just scratches the surface.
Humans, as I’ve said, are fascinated by time and the words we use to talk about it reflects our preoccupation with it.
As innately orderly creatures, we have an inborn need to catalog, categorize, and describe everything around us. It’s how we make sense of the world, so it isn’t surprising that our ancestors began to notice time passing. Our ancestors could watch “time go by,” as they figured out how to track the movements of the sun, the moon and the seasons.
Time, they said, could become “ripe.” There were “better days coming” and there used to be “good old days.”
As hunter-gatherers and then as farmers and members of larger and larger groups and communities, our ancestors became aware of how time could get “full” with all kinds of doings and activities.
When humans gathered together into larger and larger groups the relationships between people became more complex and time was perceived as one more important element in all kinds of human interactions. A lot of that was because of the need to coordinate the actions of the members of groups of people who were working on projects that were meant to dent the world as we knew it.
Deep thinkers and the people with influence and power among them could use the natural passage of time to subject objects, situations and circumstances or hypotheses and theories to the “test of time.”
These power-people might even decide that it was “time for a change.”
Rascals, scammers and rapscallions could “two-time” anyone or anything, and everybody could use time to heal all wounds. Humans were able to have “the time of their lives” or they might have “a hell of a time.” There were happy times and there were sad times.
There were also high or low, hard or soft, and good or bad times to be had by all. Some of these most excellent folks even had a “whale of a time” or they “hit the big time.”
Anybody could shrug and say that something was “only a matter of time” or that a thing might happen “all in good time.”
The accumulation of “years,” “months” and “days” that we called “yesterday,” “today,” and “tomorrow” got broken down further into “hours” and “minutes” and “seconds” and ever-smaller bits as people developed the ways and means to actually measure all those bits and pieces of time.
MEASURING TIME HAVE KEPT THE MAKERS BUSY THROUGH THE AGES
Time has fascinated humans ever since it made its appearance on the world-stage. (Nobody really knows who “invented” the concept of time, but we humans have certainly been intrigued by the idea since whenever it began.)
Ingenious human makers have been slicing, dicing and measuring time for ages now. They produced all kinds of ingenious devices to “tell time” using the natural phenomena around them. These phenomena included these kinds of things:
- the shadows cast by the sun shining on a stick (or a ginormous rock column) stuck in the ground,
- the movements of dripping water or sliding sand channeled by enveloping metal, pottery or glass containments,
- the burn rates of candles,
- the movements of weights and pendulums,
- the interplay of balance springs and assorted meshing gear arrangements,
- the shock of an electrical charge running through a quartz crystal, and
- the vibrations of a particular sort of atom.
The measuring devices the makers made got smaller and more portable. The makers were able to achieve an ever greater precision in doing what they did.
This video, “TimeLine,” is a “brief introduction to the history of timekeeping devices.” It was uploaded in 2013 by SpotImageryLtd.
CLOCK TIME AND PRODUCTIVITY TAKE OVER
Even more eye-opening is a second YouTube video, What Life Was Like In the Industrial Revolution, a 2022 episode in the Patreon-funded vlog, The Intrigued Mind. It details what many ordinary folks experienced during that world-changing epoch when the human fascination with time became an obsession with something called “productivity” and producing desirable results.
All kinds of Smarty Pants through the years expanded on and used the building blocks of the Revolution’s time-measuring systems, processes and technologies. Clever dudes and dudettes figured out how we regular sorts (and our overseers) could actually “use time wisely” and egg each other on to keep on doing more and more and more.
The thought-construct of “productivity” was born and grew and grew during the Industrial Revolution when we humans got carried away with the “time-is-money” thing.
Basically, industrial-type economic productivity is measured by figuring out how people, businesses and countries can use the least amount of resources available (time, money, energy, manpower, space, materials, and so on and so forth) to produce and deliver the most goods and services to our customers and consumers for the least cost.
It became the chief metric for measuring the “healthiness” of a going concern.
As the Intrigued Mind video points out, this way of measuring how we do what we do is often not really a good thing for humans. Apparently, nobody could (or wanted to) figure out how to measure the humaneness and the humanity of the assorted moves we made to improve productivity.
The metrics used were also not so good for the planet either.
Improved productivity with all of its attendant benefits and costs flowed into our collective consciousness as well. We started assessing and weighing up our own personal doings with these very same standards and systems of measurement.
The productivity thought-construct grew large on an awesome tide of big and small technological advancements that wowed us regular folks or left us jittering away in reaction to what is probably an inevitable overwhelm brought on by the sheer volume of details and more details.
One result of all of this relentless industrial-strength mind-work is that many regular folks nowadays say they feel like they are drowning in a flood of a constantly churning chaos of change.
(It might be worth noting that this kind of a reaction does tend to happen when one tiny mind takes on the task of trying to understand and encompass any of the big Mysteries presented by Life-Its-Own-Self. It has happened time and time again.)
The story still continues onward. All of us humans keep on making it up as we go along. That too, it seems, is what we humans do.
Here’s a poem:
It all takes time.
When the dance is slow, is stately,
The dancers move to subtle rhythms
Tied to the heart and no one can say
When the dance will end.
Time is NOT of the essence.
Time IS the essence.
Movement following the Tai Ch’i,
A turtle swims through the mother sea,
Crossing the void slowly,
Not turning from its course.
On its back, it carries the world.
[by Netta Kanoho]
Header photo credit: “The Watchmakers Amanuensis” by Jussi via Flickr [CC BY-SA 2.0]
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