Monday, June 10, 2013

New Terminology About Time

Time is the most used noun in the English language according to the Concise Oxford English Dictionary

Yet although there are numerous phrases involving the word time such as: 
no time, good time, find time, out of time, and in time
there is not much clarity or distinction in the usage. 

Therefore a major problem when discussing time, is that the we do not have the necessary vocabulary to talk about it. Words are like tools and without the right tools, we can't get the job done. It's like needing a wrench when what you have is a hammer. When we consider the subject of time, we simply don't have the right wrenches and pliers in our toolbox.

Don't give me a wrench when I need a hammer. 

Don't give me a hammer when I need a wrench.

For example, the words time or past or future or now can each have very different meanings depending on the context. Some meanings are even contradictory.  

Take the word *now*:
  •  it can mean this exact moment (such as: What is the time now?)
  •  or a bit before this moment (I did what you asked just now.)
  •  or a bit after this moment (Lets do this now.)
  •  or today (I'll get this done now.)
  •  of this year (Now the politics are getting ugly.)
  •  or this decade (Now we do things differently than they did in the 1980s.)
  •  or the near future (Will we be able to build a high speed rail network now?)
If we want to talk about time and understand time in a more nuanced manner, we must have more words, more phrases, more concepts. 
In the arctic climate the "language of the Sami people [ED: also known as Laplanders] actually includes around 180 snow and ice related words..." (
We must learn from the Sami people and construct at least as many different words and phrases for different aspects of time as they have for kinds of snow. Because for both us and them, our lives depend on it.
The six-tense language Kalaw Lagaw Ya of Australia has the remote past, the recent past, the today past, the present, the today/near future and the remote future. (
A major effort of this blog will be to suggest new terms and new terminology. Naturally these are only suggestions and readers may have better ideas. I invite  feedback. And to get started here is a suggestion for two new terms.

Fluid Time & Hardened Time

Time has two different almost opposite natures: one is quite flexible, the other  is hard and unforgiving. 

While many of us believe that "what's done is done and what's past cannot be undone," this is simply not true. For most of our waking hours, we live in what I call 'fluid time'. This means that you have flexibility to, for example, go back and fix something if it did not get fixed the first time -- to change your schedule around; to rework things that did not work properly.

With fluid time, if you miss a train, you can always catch the next one. 
Time can be corrected and is not irreversible.

In this case time has not 'hardened' because what you are doing can still be molded, modified, altered, changed or corrected. Most days you deal with this kind of time.

Yet like a beloved dog or cat who suddenly decides to bite, time can rear its other nature and cause no end of grief.

Perhaps the most agonizing and mysterious aspect of time is when it becomes irreversible and suddenly sets like hardened concrete; this is hardened time. Or we could call this 'irreversible time'. It can happen in minor ways and in major life events. When a cup falls off a table and breaks into a hundred pieces, it is only annoying yet irreversible. 

'Irreversible time' can happen gradually. A man who can never get around to asking his girlfriend to marry him may find, without his realizing it, that she has slipped away and the moment to marry her has passed. 

'Irreversible time' can happen suddenly.  When out of the blue a car swerves into your lane and causes an accident in which a person is killed, it is too late to go back and change things. It is this kind of time that people are speaking about, when they say there's no use worrying about the past and there is no going back. There's no use crying over spilled milk.

With hardened time, there is no going back. 
While you might recover from an injury, the injury is a fact and 
its consequences will be with you for the rest of your life.

There are points when fluid time slips into irreversible time, as when I leave home and drive to work forgetting an essential notebook. For the first few minutes, if I remember, I can go back and get it, but later in my commute, I do not have that option as it will make me late for work. The 'window of opportunity' will have closed.

So the two phrases I would suggest 
adding to the terminology about time are:

  • fluid time -- this could also be called flexible time, but that might confuse it with the work related term flextime
  • hardened time  -- this could also be called irreversible time
NOTE: A major effort of civilization has been to gain more power to correct things that were once considered part of hardened time. As we humans obtain more knowledge, we have been able to do this. For example, I just had two hip replacements. Thirty years ago I would have been confined to a wheel chair for the rest of my life, but today I can walk around like a much younger man. So what was once considered hardened or irreversible, is now a bit more fluid -- as I still had to go through two operations and 6 months of rehab.

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