I Didn’t See That Coming! Metaphors of Time

blog - time - train comingHave you ever heard the phrase, “I didn’t see that coming?”  This phrase is normally used when an event occurs in our lives that we were not expecting, such as suddenly being laid off, or a celebrity doing something stupid.  We say it all the time, but one must admit it is pretty strange when you think about it.  It implies that events of the future are coming at us like a car on the road or a train on the tracks.  In fact, the way we conceptualize time is one of the strangest aspects of the study of metaphor.

For example, a recent Time magazine article describes how the economy is recovering (“Surprise: The Economy Isn’t as Bad as You Think: Seven Signs America has Turned the Corner” by Roger Altman, Time, July 28, 2014, pp. 38-42).  Altman explains, “And it’s all being turbocharged by an energy boom nobody saw coming” (italics mine, p. 40).  The concept of time coming at us is just one of the ways we conceptualize time.

When I was first writing my book on political metaphors, I was sure that I would have a chapter on metaphors of time.  However, I could not find any consistent set of political metaphors based on concepts of time. Instead I found an odd collection of sayings that were not directly related to political actions or speeches.

blog - time - soldiers marchingFor example, we have a saying time marches on.  This phrase is interesting for three reasons: 1) the notion of time is personified, i.e., we conceive of time as a person doing an action; 2) time as a person is not still but constantly moving forward; and 3) we say that time is marching. We don’t say that time is strolling by, or time is running down the track.  When we say that time is marching, we imply that it is moving at a consistent deliberate pace as when a soldier marches into battle lock step with his fellow soldiers.

blog - time - watchWe also say time waits for no one.  Again this phrase is an example of personification as if time is a person who continues to move forward regardless of human behavior or actions.  We may also say time is on our side as if time is a person who is supporting one’s actions.

blog - time - hourglass



This idea of time as movement perhaps relates to the fact that we also conceptualize time as a distance.   We describe time as being short or long as if it is a two-dimensional linear object.  In fact, we can say that a short time is brief, but I cannot think of another way to describe the opposite without saying long.  We even use the word long when we ask questions about time.  For example, “How long did you have to wait at the doctor’s office?” “Oh, not too long.  About a half hour.”

Then we have the examples of time coming at us.  We have such expressions as the time has come to take action, or the election is coming up.  And we have the phrase mentioned earlier, “nobody saw [that] coming.”

Since we conceive as time coming at us, it is perhaps not surprising that we may also say that we are looking at time as if it is ahead of us.  We might say that we are looking forward to our summer vacation or looking towards a better solution to a problem in the future.

An outlook of the Columbia Gorge in Washington state
An outlook of the Columbia Gorge in Washington state

The author of the article also mentions that, “Our outlook shines compared to that of the rest of the industrialized world…” (p. 40). Thus we have the unusual word outlook with a preposed adverb preceding the verb.  The author also writes “But in terms of the growth outlook, the news is good” (p. 40).

Another unusual word used to talk about the future is forecast.  Once again the short form of the adverb before is preposed before the verb cast.  This term is used to describe the intent to predict a future event such as the weather or a stock performance.  The Time article describes that new houses are being built at increasing rates.  While prior to the housing crisis 1.5 million homes were built annually, the rate dropped to only 500,000 homes.  “Most forecasts envision a rate of roughly 1.2 million next year…” (p. 40).

blog - time - forecast

While there are many different types of metaphors used to talk about the economy, it is interesting to look at the way we talk about metaphors of time as we describe economic progress.  It gives us a view into how our minds work in conceptualizing abstract ideas.  Students of language or politics would benefit from a deeper understanding of how these metaphors work.

Next time:  Turning the Corner: More Economic Metaphors