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Twenty Metaphors About Time

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If you put any trust in proverbs, you already know that time heals, steals, and flies. And you're equally aware that time is something we all make and take, save and spend, keep, waste, kill, and lose. Habitually, almost without thinking, we explain our relationship to time through metaphors--many different metaphors.

In More Than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor (University of Chicago Press, 1989), George Lakoff and Mark Turner remind us that "Metaphor isn't just for poets; it's in ordinary language and is the principal way we have of conceptualizing abstract concepts like life, death, and time." So whether we're spending it or running out of it, we deal with time (and time deals with us) metaphorically.

Here, if you have the time to spare, are twenty metaphorical definitions of time.

  • Time Is a Circus
    Time is a circus, always packing up and moving away.
    (Ben Hecht)


  • Time Is a Gypsy
    Time, you old gipsy man,
    Will you not stay,
    Put up your caravan
    Just for one day?
    (Ralph Hodgson, "Time, You Old Gipsy Man")


  • Time Is a Thief
    Prince, I warn you, under the rose,
    Time is the thief you cannot banish.
    These are my daughters, I suppose.
    But where in the world did the children vanish?
    (Phyllis McGinley, "Ballad of Lost Objects")


  • Time Is a Trap
    But that's where I am, there's no escaping it. Time's a trap, I'm caught in it.
    (Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale)


  • Time Is a Reef
    Time is the reef upon which all our frail mystic ships are wrecked.
    (Noel Coward, Blithe Spirit)


  • Time Is a Spinner
    She tried to discover what kind of woof Old Time, that greatest and longest established Spinner of all, would weave from the threads he had already spun into a woman. But his factory is a secret place, his work is noiseless, and his Hands are mutes.
    (Charles Dickens, Hard Times)


  • Time Is a Storm
    Time is a storm in which we are all lost. Only inside the convolutions of the storm itself shall we find our directions.
    (William Carlos Williams, Introduction, Selected Essays)


  • Time Is a Stream
    Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains.
    (Henry David Thoreau, Walden)


  • Time Is a River
    Time is a flowing river. Happy those who allow themselves to be carried, unresisting, with the current. They float through easy days. They live, unquestioning, in the moment.
    (Christopher Morley, Where the Blue Begins)


  • Time Is an Equal-Opportunity Employer
    Time is an equal opportunity employer. Each human being has exactly the same number of hours and minutes every day. Rich people can't buy more hours; scientists can't invent new minutes. And you can't save time to spend it on another day. Even so, time is amazingly fair and forgiving. No matter how much time you've wasted in the past, you still have an entire tomorrow.
    (Denis Waitely, The Joy of Working)


  • Time Is a Miser
    Old Time, in whose banks we deposit our notes
    Is a miser who always wants guineas for groats;
    He keeps all his customers still in arrears
    By lending them minutes and charging them years.
    (Oliver Wendell Holmes, "Our Banker")


  • Time Is a Coin
    Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you.
    (Carl Sandburg)


  • Time Is Money
    Yesterday is a canceled check; tomorrow is a promissory note; today is the only cash you have, so spend it wisely.
    (Kay Lyons)


  • Time Is a Fixed Income
    Time is a fixed income and, as with any income, the real problem facing most of us is how to live successfully within our daily allotment.
    (Margaret B. Johnstone)


  • Time Is a School and a Fire
    What am I now that I was then?
    May memory restore again and again
    The smallest color of the smallest day:
    Time is the school in which we learn,
    Time is the fire in which we burn.
    (Delmore Schwartz, "Calmly We Walk Through This April’s Day")


  • Time Is a Dressmaker
    Time is a dressmaker specializing in alterations.
    (Faith Baldwin, Face Toward the Spring)


  • Time Is a Prison
    Initially, I was unaware that time, so boundless at first blush, was a prison.
    (Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory)


  • Time Is an Arrow
    Time is an irreversible arrow, and we can never return to the self that we sloughed off in childhood or adolescence. The man trying to wear youth's carefree clothing, the woman costuming her emotions in doll's dresses--these are pathetic figures who want to reverse time's arrow.
    (Joshua Loth Liebman, "Renunciation of Immaturity," Peace of Mind)


  • Time Is a Teacher
    Time is a great teacher, but unfortunately it kills all its pupils.
    (Hector Berlioz)


  • Time Is a Gift
    Time is a gift, given to you,
    given to give you the time you need
    the time you need to have the time of your life.
    (Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth)

Time is indeed a "versatile performer," as Franklin P. Jones once observed. "It flies, marches on, heals all wounds, runs out, and will tell."

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