Time and tide

In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius wrote:

Every instant of time is a pinprick of eternity

Marcus Aurelius, was Roman Emperor from 161 to 180 AD. We know him because he is the wise Caesar played by Richard Harris, with Russel Crowe as Maximus, in Ridley Scott’s film, Gladiator. He is known as a philosopher king and wrote several influential works, particularly supporting the Stoics.

Time, is perhaps one of the most difficult words to define because of its very conceptual nature. The Oxford Dictionary defines it as a continuous, measurable quantity in which events occur in a sequence proceeding from the past through the present to the future.

But Marcus Aurelius is much closer to the original meaning when he spoke of pinpricks of eternity. In Old English, tima, meant a limited space of time. It comes from Old German timon and is similar to the Old Norse timi. But the word has very old roots in the original language of Eurasia, the Proto-Indo-European word dimon, from the base da meaning to cut up, divide.

So, originally time meant not the continuous quantity that we now use it to mean, but bits of time. The word time is closely related to the word tide, which came from Old English tid for a point or portion of time. The tide has come to mean a portion of time defined by the rise and fall of the sea.

So when we say time and tide wait for no man – which is one of the oldest expressions in English – we risk being tautological. A thousand years ago another philosopher king, Canute, sat on the beach to prove the truth of this expression to his courtiers.

Tidings is also a derivative from the same origins. When we bring good tidings we bring good news of an event or an occurrence – a particularly pleasant moment in time.