Idiomatic expressions or idioms are fascinating linguistic components that add color, humor, and poetic imagery to our everyday speech. These expressions are culture-specific and are often puzzling to non-native speakers. One particular group of idioms that is prevalent across many languages is time idioms. These phrases relate to clocks, schedules, and the general concept of the passage of time. In this article, we will explore these time idioms in English, their origins, meanings, usage, and how they enrich our language and communication.

What Are Time Idioms?

Time idioms are expressions that metaphorically represent various aspects of time. The idioms range from those related to clock time, such as “in the nick of time,” to more abstract concepts like “time flies.” The unique aspect of idioms is that they often do not convey their literal meanings. Instead, they depend on cultural and contextual interpretations. This feature makes idioms particularly challenging to learn for non-native speakers, but also incredibly rewarding, as understanding idioms often signifies a deep grasp of the language.

Clock Time Idioms

Clock Idioms

Idioms related to clock time often refer to the hours, minutes, and seconds that make up our day. A deeper understanding of these idioms can add vibrancy to one’s language and communication skills.

  1. “In the Nick of Time”: This phrase means just in time, without a moment to spare. It was first recorded in the 16th century and its origin is thought to be from an old custom of recording time and tallying scores or debts by making nicks or cuts on a stick.
  2. “At the Eleventh Hour”: Another idiom referring to something happening at the last possible moment. It is derived from a biblical source, specifically the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard in the Gospel of Matthew.
  3. “Around the Clock”: This phrase is used to describe something that happens all day and all night or continuously. It arose from the concept of a clock’s hands moving in a circle 24 hours a day.
  4. “Like Clockwork”: This idiom describes an action or event happening regularly or precisely. The imagery draws on the mechanical precision of clock gears working together seamlessly.

Schedule Time Idioms

Schedule Time Idioms

Schedules, like clocks, provide a sense of order to our lives. They create expectations for when events should occur, and idioms about schedules often revolve around these norms and expectations.

  1. “Ahead of One’s Time”: This idiom refers to someone having ideas or attitudes that are too advanced or progressive for their time period. It implies that the person is so innovative that the society around them hasn’t caught up yet.
  2. “Behind the Times”: On the other end of the spectrum, this phrase describes someone or something that is outdated or not keeping up with current trends or technologies.
  3. “Call it a Day”: This idiom means to stop working for the rest of the day. Its origin is believed to come from the habit of formally declaring the end of a day’s labor or activity.
  4. “Once in a Blue Moon”: This phrase refers to something happening very rarely. It derives from the astronomical phenomenon of having two full moons in one calendar month, which is a rare occurrence.

The Passage of Time Idioms

Passage of time Idioms

More abstract than clocks or schedules, idioms about the passage of time often deal with our perceptions of time and how we experience it.

  1. “Time Flies”: This idiom expresses the feeling that time passes quickly, especially when one is busy or enjoying themselves. Its origins can be traced back to the Latin phrase “Tempus fugit.”
  2. “Kill Time”: This phrase means to use up time in a rather wasteful manner. The idea is that one is “killing” time that could be spent more productively.
  3. “Living on Borrowed Time”: This idiomatic expression is used when someone or something has continued to survive against expectations. It refers to the metaphorical idea that their extended time is not really theirs, but borrowed.
  4. “Time Heals All Wounds”: This common phrase suggests that given enough time, all emotional pain and physical injuries can improve or be forgotten. The phrase has been used in various forms for centuries, underlying our shared human experience of recovery and resilience.
  1. “Beat the Clock”: To complete a task just before the deadline or before time runs out. Example: Sarah managed to beat the clock and submit her assignment just minutes before the deadline.
  2. “In the Long Run”: Over an extended period of time; considering the future outcome. Example: Investing in education will pay off in the long run.
  3. “Against the Clock”: Working urgently and quickly to finish something within a limited time frame. Example: The team worked against the clock to meet the project deadline.
  4. “Time Out of Mind”: Referring to a distant or ancient time. Example: The ruins date back to a time out of mind when this land was inhabited by a long-lost civilization.
  5. “Behind Schedule”: Not progressing as planned or falling behind the expected timeline. Example: The construction of the new building is behind schedule due to unexpected delays.
  6. “Ahead of Schedule”: Completing a task or reaching a goal earlier than expected. Example: The project was completed ahead of schedule, much to the client’s delight.
  7. “Make Up for Lost Time”: To compensate for time that was wasted or lost by working harder or being more productive. Example: After being sick for a week, Emma had to make up for lost time by working longer hours.
  8. “In Due Time”: At the appropriate or expected time. Example: Patience is key; your efforts will be rewarded in due time.
  9. “Time is of the Essence”: Urgency or promptness is crucial. Example: When responding to emergencies, time is of the essence.
  10. “Killing Time”: Filling or passing the time in a leisurely or unproductive manner. Example: Waiting for the train, she killed time by browsing through a magazine.
  11. “Time Well Spent”: Time used in a valuable or productive manner. Example: The family vacation was time well spent, creating lasting memories.
  12. “Time on Your Hands”: Having an abundance of free time. Example: After retiring, Susan suddenly found herself with a lot of time on her hands.
  13. “Bide Your Time”: To wait patiently for the right opportunity to take action. Example: He decided to bide his time and wait for the perfect moment to propose.
  14. “In the Fullness of Time”: At the right or appropriate time in the future. Example: The truth will be revealed in the fullness of time; we just have to be patient.
  15. “Crunch Time”: The period of intense pressure, usually just before an important deadline or event. Example: It’s crunch time now, so we need to focus and get this project finished.
  16. “Stand the Test of Time”: To endure or remain successful over a long period. Example: Classic novels like “Pride and Prejudice” have stood the test of time and are still beloved today.
  17. “Wasting Time”: Spending time unproductively or frivolously. Example: Instead of studying, he wasted time playing video games.
  18. “The Sands of Time”: A poetic phrase referring to the passing of time or the inevitability of change. Example: As the years passed, the sands of time eroded the old castle walls.
  19. “Time and Again”: Repeatedly; happening over and over throughout a period. Example: Time and again, she has proven herself to be a reliable and dedicated employee.
  20. “Stand the Time”: To remain relevant or valuable over a long period. Example: The classic design of the little black dress has stood the test of time and is still fashionable today.

Remember, idioms may vary in usage and meaning across different contexts, so it’s essential to consider the context when using these expressions in your own conversations or writing.


Understanding and using time idioms can significantly enhance our communication skills, providing a richness and depth that literal language often cannot achieve. Time idioms, like all idioms, are cultural treasures, reflecting the values, history, and even the humor of the people who use them. They are linguistic tools that not only convey meanings but also add a layer of cultural understanding that fosters empathy and connection.

By exploring idiomatic expressions related to clocks, schedules, and the passage of time, we not only better understand the English language but also gain insights into the collective wisdom and worldview embedded in these phrases. Learning these idioms takes time and practice, but as the old saying goes, “Time and tide wait for no man.” So, let’s embrace the journey of learning and enjoy the beauty of idiomatic expressions along the way.

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