Have you ever heard someone say they’ll do something “in the nick of time” or that they’re “burning the midnight oil?”
Idioms about time are colorful expressions we use to describe different aspects of time in a way that’s more vivid and memorable than plain language. They are not just a play on words; they’re a fascinating lens through which different cultures interpret and relate to time itself.
Join us as we delve into the intriguing world of time idioms and explore what they reveal about our perception of time.
Urgency and Time Constraints
1. Against the clock
Working quickly because there is a tight deadline. When someone is against the clock, they are rushing to finish something before a set time.
2. A race against time
Trying to do something in a very limited time. It’s used when someone has to hurry to complete a task before a deadline.
3. In the nick of time
Just in time, at the last possible moment. It means someone arrived or completed a task just before it was too late.
4. At the eleventh hour
Making a decision or taking action at the last possible moment. This idiom refers to waiting until the last possible opportunity to do something.
5. Time is of the essence
It is critical to act quickly and efficiently. This phrase is often used in contracts to emphasize that time is a key factor and delays are unacceptable.
6. Down to the wire
Waiting until the last moment to do something. This idiom means that time is running out to complete a task, and a decision or action must be made soon.
7. The clock is ticking
Time is passing quickly, and there is a sense of urgency. When someone says this, they mean that action needs to be taken soon.
8. Under the gun
Being under extreme pressure to complete a task by a specific deadline. This idiom implies that someone feels stressed or pressured to finish something quickly.
9. Time’s a-wastin’
Time is passing quickly, so it is important to start acting now. This idiom encourages prompt action without further delay.
Frequency and Occurrence
1. Once in a blue moon
Something that happens very rarely. It’s used to describe events that hardly ever happen, like seeing a rare comet or finding a valuable antique at a garage sale.
2. From time to time
An event or action that occurs occasionally but not on a regular basis. For example, someone might visit their grandparents from time to time, meaning not every week but several times a year.
3. Time and again
Something that happens repeatedly or frequently. If a person makes the same mistake time and again, it means they have made that mistake many times before.
4. Not in a million years
Something that is highly unlikely ever to happen. If someone says they won’t change their mind, not in a million years, it means they are very sure, and nothing can change their decision.
5. Every now and then
Something that happens occasionally but not constantly or regularly. Someone might clean their garage every now and then, meaning they don’t do it often, but they do it when necessary.
6. Twelfth of never
A date that doesn’t exist, so it means something will never happen. If someone says they will pay you back on the twelfth of never, they are saying they have no intention of ever paying you back.
Opportunities and Taking Action
1. Strike while the iron is hot
Act quickly when an opportunity presents itself. If you wait too long, the chance to act effectively may pass. This phrase encourages you to take action when conditions are favorable.
2. Jump on the bandwagon
Join a popular trend or activity. When a lot of people start supporting a particular thing, and you decide to join them, you are jumping on the bandwagon.
3. Make hay while the sun shines
Take advantage of favorable circumstances while you can. If you have an opportunity to do something beneficial, it’s best to do it right away before the situation changes.
4. When the time is ripe
Wait for the perfect moment to take action. This phrase advises patience, suggesting it’s best to wait for the most opportune time to act rather than rushing in.
5. The ship has sailed
An opportunity has already passed, and it’s too late to take advantage of it. If you missed your chance to do something, you might say the ship has sailed.
6. Miss the boat
Fail to seize an opportunity because of slow or delayed action. If you wait too long to make a decision, the chance to act may be gone, and you have missed the boat.
7. The ball is in your court
It is now someone else’s turn to take action or make a decision. This phrase is used when one person has done all they can, and now it’s another person’s turn to respond.
8. On the dot
Exactly on time, neither early nor late. If a meeting starts at 10:00 and you arrive at 10:00 on the dot, you arrive exactly when the meeting is scheduled to start.
9. On the spur of the moment
Making a sudden decision to do something without planning it in advance. If you decide to take a trip without planning it, just because you feel like it, you are acting on the spur of the moment.
Delay and Procrastination
1. Buy time
To create a delay or extend a deadline to give oneself more time. If you ask for more information about a project, not because you need the information but because you want more time, you are trying to buy time.
2. Kill time
To use up time in a relaxed way while waiting for something to happen. If you read a book while waiting for a friend to arrive, you are killing time.
3. Waste no time
To act quickly and decisively without delay. If you start working on a project as soon as it is assigned, you are wasting no time in getting started.
4. Put off until tomorrow what you can do today
To delay doing something that you should do now. This phrase is often used to point out that procrastination is a bad habit, leading to tasks piling up and becoming more daunting.
5. A watched pot never boils
When you are waiting for something to happen, time seems to pass very slowly. This phrase suggests that being impatient and constantly checking on a situation doesn’t make it happen any faster. It’s often used to encourage patience.
Moments and Duration
1. In the blink of an eye
Something that happens extremely quickly. If a moment is over before you even realize it started, it happened in the blink of an eye. It refers to a very short period of time, almost instantaneous.
2. For the time being
A phrase used to describe a temporary situation. If you are staying at a friend’s house for the time being, you are staying there temporarily until you find your own place. It suggests that the current situation may change in the future.
3. In an instant
Happening immediately or very quickly. If something changes or happens in an instant, there is hardly any time between when it started and when it finished.
4. In a jiffy
A very short amount of time. If you tell someone you’ll be back in a jiffy, you’re saying you’ll be back very quickly. It is used to say that something will be done soon.
5. Time stands still
A way to describe a moment that seems to last longer than it actually does, often because it is significant or emotional. For example, in a moment of great happiness or surprise, it might feel like time stands still.
6. In two shakes of a lamb’s tail
Very quickly or soon. This phrase means that something will take only a short time. For example, if you’re asked when you will finish a task, you might reply, “in two shakes of a lamb’s tail,” to say you will finish it very soon.
Success and Completion
1. By the skin of one’s teeth
Barely managing to succeed in something. If you pass an exam by one point, you pass by the skin of your teeth. It means you almost didn’t succeed, but you did.
2. Just in time
Completing something right before time runs out. If you arrive at the station just as the train is pulling in, you get there just in time. It suggests perfect timing, neither early nor late.
3. Like clockwork
Something that happens smoothly and without any problems, just as planned. If a team works well together and completes a project without any issues, their collaboration runs like clockwork.
4. At the drop of a hat
Acting immediately, without any hesitation. If someone leaves work to help a friend at the drop of a hat, they leave as soon as they hear their friend needs help.
5. In the right place at the right time
Being in a situation where you can take advantage of an opportunity that not everyone has. If you walk into a store and find the last pair of shoes that are in your size on sale, you are in the right place at the right time.
Preparation and Prevention
1. A stitch in time saves nine
Taking care of a problem when it’s small prevents it from becoming a bigger problem later. If you fix a small tear in your shirt right away, it won’t get worse and require more effort to fix later.
2. Don’t count your chickens before they hatch
Don’t assume that something will happen until it actually does. For example, planning what you’ll do with money you might win in a contest is counting your chickens before they hatch because you might not win.
3. Early bird catches the worm
Acting early or being proactive gives you an advantage. If you apply for a job as soon as it’s posted, you might have a better chance of getting it than someone who waits.
4. Make up for lost time
Trying to do something faster after a delay, to complete it at the same time as originally planned. If you start your homework late but work very quickly to finish it before it’s due, you are making up for lost time.
5. Better late than never
It’s better to do something after it was supposed to be done than not to do it at all. If you forget someone’s birthday but send a card a week later, it’s better late than never.
Work and Routine
A regular work schedule, typically from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. This phrase often refers to a routine and steady job.
2. Burn the midnight oil
Working late into the night or early morning hours. This is used when someone is working hard, often staying up very late to finish a task.
3. At the crack of dawn
Very early in the morning, when the day is just beginning. If you wake up at the crack of dawn, you wake up just as the sun is rising.
4. Time is money
The idea is that it’s important to use time wisely because wasted time is like wasted money. This phrase is often used in a business context to emphasize efficiency.
5. Keep time
To maintain the correct pace or rhythm, like a clock. In work, it means maintaining a steady and consistent pace in one’s tasks.
Endings and Limitations
1. Call it a day
To decide to stop working for the day or to end something. If you have been working hard and feel that you have done enough, you might call it a day.
2. The sands of time
This a poetic way to refer to the passage of time, often used to emphasize that time moves constantly, just like sand in an hourglass.
3. Pull the plug
To stop something from continuing or happening. If a project isn’t going well and the decision is made to end it, you are pulling the plug on that project.
Duration and Anticipation
1. All in good time
A reminder to be patient and that things will happen when they are meant to. It is used when advising someone to wait patiently for something.
2. In the fullness of time
In the future, when the time is right. This phrase suggests that something will happen eventually, but not soon.
3. Time out of mind
A very long time ago, beyond memory or recall. This phrase is used to refer to a time so far in the past that people have forgotten about it.
5. Hold the fort
To be in charge and maintain the status while someone else is away. If a boss asks you to hold the fort while they are on vacation, they are asking you to take care of things until they return.
6. In the long run
Over a long period of time, in the end. This phrase suggests considering the future effects of something, not just the immediate situation.
Social Interactions and Disposition
1. Pass the time of day
Engaging in casual or polite conversation with someone, often without any significant topic. It’s like saying hello and discussing simple things, such as the weather, when you meet someone while walking in the park.
2. Have the time of your life
Experiencing great joy or the best moment in your life. If you go to a concert and enjoy it more than anything else you’ve ever done, you are having the time of your life.
3. Catch someone at a bad time
To contact or visit someone when it is inconvenient for them. If you call a friend while they are in the middle of dinner, you might catch them at a bad time.
Challenges and Difficulties
1. Pressed for time
Being in a rush or not having enough time to complete something. If you have a report due in one hour and you’re still writing, you are pressed for time.
2. In hot water
Being in trouble or in a difficult situation. If you forget your spouse’s birthday, you might find yourself in hot water.
3. Behind the times
Being old-fashioned or not keeping up with current trends or technology. If a company is using very old computers that slow down work, it is behind the times.
Reflection and Outcome
1. Time heals all wounds
As time goes on, physical and emotional pain will lessen. This phrase is often used to comfort someone who is grieving or very sad.
2. Time will tell
The truth or outcome of a situation will become clear over time. If you are not sure whether a new job is the right move, time will tell if you made the right decision.
3. Time is a great healer
With time, emotional pain or problems often become easier to deal with. This phrase is similar to “time heals all wounds,” reminding someone that things will likely improve as time goes on.
Legacy and Tradition
Something that is respected or followed because it has been a tradition for a long time. A time-honored recipe might have been passed down through generations in a family.
2. Ahead of one’s time
Having ideas or behaviors that are more advanced or progressive than the society of one’s time. A scientist who makes discoveries that no one else understands might be ahead of their time.
Punishments and Commitments
1. Serve time
To serve time means to spend a period in jail as part of a punishment for committing a crime. For example, if a person is caught stealing, a judge might sentence them to serve two years in prison.
2. Time to kill
Having more free time than you know what to do with, often while waiting for something else to happen. For instance, if you arrive three hours early for a flight, you might have time to kill at the airport.
3. Time to run
This phrase refers to needing to leave or escape quickly, often to avoid trouble or discomfort. For example, if a storm is approaching rapidly, it might be time to run to safety.
4. Time to spare
Having more than enough time to complete a task or reach a destination. If your train leaves at 5:00 PM and you arrive at the station at 4:00 PM, you have time to spare.
5. Bide one’s time
Waiting patiently for an appropriate moment to do something, rather than taking immediate action. For example, an employee might bide their time before asking the boss for a raise, waiting for the right moment when the boss is in a good mood.
1. Time and tide wait for no man
This means that time is relentless; it will continue to pass, and we cannot stop or slow it down. Missing an opportunity can mean it won’t come back. Just like the tide of the sea, time does not pause for anyone.
2. Before you can say Jack Robinson
This phrase is used to emphasize that something happens very quickly. For example, if a car was sold very quickly after being listed for sale, someone might say it was sold before you could say Jack Robinson.
3. A question of time
This phrase means that something is certain to happen, but we don’t know exactly when. For instance, if someone is working hard and improving at their job, it may just be a question of time before they get promoted.
4. Take one’s time
This means to do something slowly, without rushing, or at one’s own pace. For example, if someone is enjoying a leisurely walk in the park, they are taking their time.
5. Time flies
This phrase is used to express that time passes surprisingly quickly. People often say “time flies” when they realize that a certain period — like a holiday or a child’s school years — has passed faster than they expected.
6. Big time
This phrase refers to doing something on a large scale or to a great degree. For example, if someone improves significantly at playing a musical instrument, they might say they have improved big time.
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