NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

July 8, 2013

Say, Prof, you got a minute?

As Good As Your Word
Jonathan Wells

---- — The other day I was chatting over coffee with my friend, the professor, who, some of you will remember, was severely hurt when struck by his wife with a dangling participle. His life was at the time despaired of by his primary care physician and other board-certified and licensed health care professionals, as well as a plurality of unregistered nurses. Thanks, however, to the care of his penitent wife, who had learned to avoid misplaced modifiers, he regained his health, as well as his occasionally irascible manner.

“Well, it’s about time!” I exclaimed indignantly in reference to some matter that had come up. A thoughtful expression came over the professor’s face and I heard the clearing of the throat which portends a discourse on some weighty matter.

“Time!” he growled. “Only this morning I was telling my wife Arachne how little grasp we have of the concept of time, and how carelessly we refer to it.

I was put in mind of this yesterday when my student Dilatorius put his head into my office and said, ‘Say, Professor, do you have a minute?’ As I suspected, he really meant a lot more time than that, and as the duration of our conference passed the half-hour mark and I began to feel more like a therapist than a scholar, I interjected, ‘How long is a minute where you come from, Dilatorius?’ He paused in his plaint that he didn’t have time to do justice to the subject of his paper, but did not seem to understand what I was saying. I thought I would have a little unfair fun at his expense.”

“I tried that line from Marvell’s poem, ‘To His Coy Mistress.’ ‘But at my back I always hear,’ quoth I, ‘time’s winged chariot hurrying near.’ However, as Sam Goldwyn might have said, ‘It rolled off his back like a duck.’ ‘Tempus fugit, Dilatorius,’ I said, ‘Time flies!’ Blank expression.

“Then I tried some Macbeth on him: ‘To-morrow and to-morrow and to-morrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day to the last syllable of recorded time.’ He gave me a strange look, but rose to leave only when I told him in my most sonorous Latin that ‘the times were changing and we were changing with them.’”

“Thus, only after three-quarters of an hour,” growled the crusty old academic, “could I get back to the proofs of my groundbreaking work on the use of collective nouns in ‘Dick and Jane.’”

“Pangloss,” I declared, “how you kept your cool with Mr. D is a wonder! Actually, you’ve hit upon something that interests me a lot — how we all deal with time. We don’t really know what time is, and yet we use the word in many many different ways, including in metaphors. I started thinking about it again last week when I read the whimsical definition that ‘Time is what keeps everything from happening at once.’ Dictionary.com, I found, has 26 definitions for the noun ‘time,’ which are interesting and useful in many ways, but not in understanding the concept and using time words.”

“What exactly do you mean?” said the professor. “I don’t want to be impolite, but the faculty meeting has a timely topic and I must be on time.”

“Well,” said I, “let’s start with your student Dilatorius. When he said, ‘Got a minute?’ he had no intention of bolting after 60 seconds. He conned you, got his nose in tent, and there you were — stuck. How often have you said to Arachne when she calls, “I’ll be there in a second, dear,” which is impossible, and may mean a minute or 10 minutes. You are buying time with an easy prevarication — but of course, everyone does it. And by the way, never say you’ll be there “momentarily,” which means you’ll only be there for a moment, but rather “momently,” if you mean you’ll be there in a moment. I know that “momentarily” is often used for either, but why not fine-tune our great language when we can?

Pangloss smiled wryly. “What you say is quite true, and yet we really do have no better answers to that fascinating question, ‘What is time?’ than the amusing one you mentioned.”

“Despite the dictionary’s 26 definitions,” said I, “do you think anybody really knows? The hymn says that time is “like an ever-rolling stream” that “bears all her sons away.” John Milton calls time a subtle thief — ‘How soon hath time, the subtle thief of youth, Stol’n on his wing my three and twentieth year.’ Some physicists say that space and time …”

But just as I was about to extend my remarks further into the fourth dimension, the Professor’s cellphone rang. After listening for a moment (well, maybe almost two) he glanced at his watch. “I’ll be there presently,” he barked — “ah, that is, in one minute and 37 seconds,” then rose to his feet and left— just as you will if you want to be wherever it is on time.

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Jonathan Wells of Newbury looks forward to your timely thoughts at jon3sticks@gmail.com.