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shameless pleading





Tempest and Time

Without feathers, but I have glue.

Dear Word Detective:  How did “tempest” derive from “time”? — Anne.

Ah, a perilously direct and succinct question, sadly devoid of funny family anecdotes or exploitable cultural references, but not to worry.  Many years ago, in a secret martial word-arts academy in Bayonne, New Jersey, I learned the ancient rhetorical skill of disarming a direct, six-word question by answering it with a 300-word dissertation on domestic animal husbandry.  En garde, mon ami.

Kidding aside, I’m assuming that you actually looked up the two words in a dictionary, which told you they were related, which they are, in a way.  But it’s not entirely accurate to say that the word “tempest” was derived from the word “time.”  The two words aren’t directly linguistically related in English.  “Tempest,” however, is closely bound up with the concept of time.

Our English word “time” first appeared in Old English, drawn from the old Germanic root “timon,” which in turn was based on a root meaning “to stretch or extend.”  The earliest use of “time” in English was to mean “a finite period of continued existence,” as we use it today in such phrases as “a long time.”  Various other meanings were piled on “time” in short order, including “time” to mean the expanse of one’s life (e.g., “In my time we ate gravel for breakfast and loved it”), “time” meaning one’s personal experience of an event or occurrence (“I had a good time”), “time” meaning a specific moment hour and minute of the day (“What time is it?”), and “time” meaning “occasion” (“Remember that time we made chocolate-chip meatloaf?”).

As I said, “tempest” is rooted in the concept of “time,” but most of the evolution of the word took place before it reached English.  The Latin word for “time” (meaning both “time” in general and “the proper time for something to be done”) was “tempus” (which eventually gave us the English word “temporary”).  “Tempestas,” a Latin derivative of “tempus,” meant “period of time” or, more importantly, “season of the year.”  Since the most notable feature of a season is its weather, “tempestas” came to mean “weather,” and since the most memorable weather is usually bad, “tempestas” came to mean, over the years, “bad weather,” “storm,” and finally “violent storm.”  When “tempest” finally appeared in English, drawn from Old French in the 13th century, it was with the meaning, still the main one in use today, of “violent storm with high winds, rain, hail, etc.”

That Latin “tempus” meaning “time,” by the way, may be connected to several other English words, although we can’t be absolutely certain.  “Tempus” seems to have given birth to the Latin verb “temperare,” meaning “to mix properly, moderate or blend,” probably as an outgrowth of the “proper or suitable time” meaning of “tempus.”  Its English derivative “temper,” which appeared in the 14th century, originally meant “mixture of elements,” but came to mean “mixture of mental traits,” which eventually gave us “temper” meaning “mood,” etc.  That same root “temperare” also gave us “temperature” (originally “moderate” weather, later “degree of warmth”), as well as “temperate” and “temperance” (originally simply meaning “moderation”).

2 comments to Tempest and Time

  • I think that “in my time” has a more specific meaning of “in my youth” or “in my prime,” whereas if we refer to someone else’s time (“in Ben Franklin’s time,” for example) it would likely refer to the entire span of years during which the person was alive.

  • Sandra Taylor

    My mother in law (born 1889) was known to remark, “Tempus, it sure does fugit.”

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