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Word roots and routes: time and tide

© ThinkstockNext in a series of posts exploring some of the ‘roots’ and ‘routes’ of English vocabulary.

Time and tide are another pair of words, of Latin and Germanic origin respectively, whose meanings have taken different routes in their journey towards modern English. The noun tide originally meant time, and this meaning survives in the names of times of year such as Whitsuntide and the old-fashioned term Yuletide. The corresponding adjective tidy, too, originally meant ‘timely, seasonable, in season’; its meaning subsequently developed through ‘opportune, appropriate, fit for purpose’, to the modern sense of ‘good-looking, neat, in good order’.

Tide became associated particularly with the times of high and low water at particular places along the coast – high tide and low tide – and then with the actual rising and falling of the level of the sea. This remains the basic literal meaning of tide, and people who live on the coast, or who go there for holidays, talk about the tide coming in, turning and going out, but for many people the word tide is more familiar in metaphorical senses such as a tendency for people to think or feel in a certain way, or for events to develop in a certain direction, e.g. the tide of public opinion, a rising tide of crime, stem the tide or turn back the tide, swim against/with the tide.

Tidings were originally events, and then the reports of these events, i.e. news. Although the word tidings is no longer in general use, it reappears annually around this time of year in Christmas carols and greetings on Christmas cards, in phrases such as glad tidings, i.e. good news.

Time, meanwhile, has become the general word for a number of related senses such as a period of time (e.g. a long time), an occasion (e.g. next time), the right time for something (e.g. time to be going) and experience (e.g. the time of my life). It also appears in quite a number of widely-used compounds, such as air time, anytime, bedtime, daytime, flexitime, lifetime, lunchtime, overtime, sometimes, summertime, teatime, big time, full-time, real time, time-consuming, timeless and timetable.

Other words etymologically related to time include tempo, the grammatical term tense (e.g. present tense) and, more distantly, temper, temperament and temperature. The Latin phrase tempus fugit (time flies) is also familiar to some English speakers.

Time flies, indeed, and in the words of another piece of folk wisdom, time and tide come together in the saying time and tide wait for no one.

Next in this series: cess, cease, cede, ceed

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Jonathan Marks

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