, Newburyport, MA


July 8, 2013

Say, Prof, you got a minute?


“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.’, 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?

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