Tag Archives: time

The Word History of Time


The temptation to call this post “A Brief History Of Time” in honour of Stephen Hawking is strong, but I can promise there are no physics here today. Instead, I’m exploring the word history of time. I usually look at the history of unusual words and time is everyday in comparison but has plenty of unusual roots.

Starting with time itself, did you know we get this one from the Vikings? Time entered English as Old English tima (a limited space of time) which has roots in Old Norse timi (proper time) and Swedish timme (an hour).

The concept of time as an infinite abstract idea dates to the 1300s and by 1509 there were images of an old man carrying an hour glass and scythe to personify time.

Time works harder as a word in English than in other European languages. Time in English can mean the extent of time, a specific point in time, and an hour. Whereas in French you’d have temps, fois and heure for those ideas and in German you’ve zeit, mal, and Uhr.

“The Times” as the name of a newspaper dates to 1788. Time in science fiction has always been important. The first time-traveling story was “The Time Machine” by H.G. Wells and the first time capsule was created in 1938 for the New York World’ Fair.

Although time reached England with the Norse invaders, the wearing of time pieces wasn’t important in a largely agricultural society until the arrival of the train, the timetable, and the industrial revolution. The idea of “being on time” arose in 1854 as a result of the railroads.

To “do time”, i.e. serve a prison sentence, first appeared in 1865. The phrase “in the nick of time” dates to Tudor times and the nick in question is the precise mark or notch on a tally stick, an early method of recording quantities precisely. The earlier phrase for the same concept was pudding time. Pudding (dessert) was served first so if you arrived in time for that course, you were just in time.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

Note – this post includes affiliate links to help support this blog.