Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Time and Tide
Wait for a Good Etymologist

by Anatoly Liberman

In dealing with a category like time, we have every reason
to suppose that in the past the word for it designated something more concrete,
for instance, a measurable interval or an observable event. What interval,
what event? Scholars facing such questions look for words whose meaning is
similar to the one they investigate; they hope to find an answer where it is
clear and apply it to harder cases. Engl. while (as in for a short
), German Stunde “hour” (but earlier also “time”), and Latin tempus
“time” provide no obvious clues. The most interesting part of the history of time
is that the German for “time” is Zeit, whose English cognate is tide.

Both literature and anthropology tell us that people who
lived in remote epochs and even in the Middle Ages thought of time as circular
rather than linear. Spring followed winter, then summer and autumn came, and
those were followed by a new winter. Only irreversible events (“catastrophes”)
can suggest to an individual that the return of everything is not eternal.
Death would be such a catastrophe, but for our ancestors death was little more
than a change in habitat. Whether one departed to an underground kingdom
(there could be several such), was taken to a place in heaven (to join the
choir invisible, feast, or fight), continued one’s existence in a burial mound
(sometimes surrounded by boisterous boon companions), or journeyed beyond the
mountain or the river, that person’s life continued in a different form. A newborn
baby was treated as a departed parent reborn. Quite naturally, recurring
events would be ideal for measuring circular time and nothing recurs on a daily
basis with greater regularity than the rise and fall, the ebb and flow, of the

In a higher sense, time and tide are synonyms,
but they are different words. In English, only a few compounds like noontide,
and Christmastide, as well as the verb betide “to
happen” (used nowadays, if ever, only in admonitions and imprecations like “woe
betide those who will doubt the uses of etymology!”), have preserved the
original meaning of tide “period, season” (spelled tid in Old English;
its oldest pronunciation was that of modern teed, whereas time
goes back to tima, also with a long first vowel, and was pronounced like
today’s teem a). Old English tima was not a doublet of tid,
a supernumerary ending in a different vowel, for it had cognates from Old Norse
to southern German. Since tid and tima were related, –d
and -m- must have been suffixes (final -a in tima is an
ending), which leaves us with the root ti-. And this is where we run
into trouble.

Roots do not have an independent existence, and yet we would
like to know what ti- meant; since suffixes were added to it, it seems
to have meant something. Or, did the sound complex tid arise as we know
it, and did people later substitute –m for –d in it, ascribe a
new (perhaps more abstract) but related meaning to tim-, and leave us
with the illusion that ti- needs an explanation? If so, how did they
invent the sound complex tid and agree that it would be the name of a
certain natural phenomenon? This is the paradox of what is called root
etymology. To answer such questions is almost as difficult as explaining the
origin of language. Hans Christian Andersen tells us that the Snow Queen kept a
little boy imprisoned in her palace and gave him pieces of ice with letters inscribed
on them. He had to make them into the word eternity. If successful, he
would get half of the world and a pair of skates. I will let our readers puzzle
out the problem of root etymology, even though I cannot promise them a similar
reward. In the meanTIME, we will turn to simpler tasks.

As noted, derivatives may retain a meaning lost or submerged
in a word consisting of a bare root. In our case, noontide (along with
other compounds) and betide are not the only helpful examples. German zeitig
means “early” (like Engl. betimes). Its Icelandic cognate (without a
suffix) means “frequent, usual, customary” and, more unexpectedly, “famous;
dear, beloved; eager.” From “frequent” to “often talked about, noted” and
therefore, “dear”? The senses “early” and “frequent” were connected with regularly
observable events, and what we call time must have been limited to a given
moment and thus indistinguishable from “newsworthy” (“briefly famous”).
Consider tidings, an Anglicized form of an Old Norse word for “news.”
Likewise, German Zeitung means “newspaper.” A curious change occurred
in the history of Engl. tidy, presumably from “timely, seasonable” to
“of good appearance, neat.” More probably, this adjective, which surfaced in
English only in the 13th century, was, like tidings, borrowed
from northern speakers and emerged with one of the meanings of its Scandinavian
counterpart. Despite the many uncertainties typical of an etymologist’s work,
we may say that our initial hypothesis has found some confirmation: both Engl. tide
and the protoform of German Zeit did not appear in language with an
abstract meaning. We know less about the history of time.

And what about meantime and its synonym meanwhile?
What is mean about their first element, and what does it mean? Here we have
“intermediate between two other quantities, points, etc.” I wish all
questions were so easy.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to blog.us@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

Recent Comments

There are currently no comments.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *