metaphors for time in English

Time is harder for humans to understand than is space. Our visual systems abound with machinery for processing extensions of space. A continuum of locations are processed in parallel, their spatial relations apprehended without cognitive effort. But for the most part, the mind represents time poorly. Our perception experience is of a very short duration- the specious present. The past is a an amalgamation of events that can be recollected,  but we don’t grasp the whole series of moments together as a continuous thread.

Metaphors can make obscure material intuitive- including thoughts about time- especially if the metaphor turns time into space.

"Chasing Time", a clock by J.P. Meulendijks

George Lakoff and his colleagues compiled a long list of common metaphors in English. I don’t know whether this list was ever formally published, but it’s floating around the web. For time, they list the below. I’ve made a few explanatory notes in brackets.


“Thursday passed without incident.” [Usually future events are in front, and past events are behind]

Special case :   Foreseeable Future Events are Up [I don’t understand why they say “future events are up”, since the examples seem to indicate that future events start below and then move upward]

“Upcoming events. What’s coming up this week? What events are up ahead?”


“Thanksgiving is looming on the horizon.”

TIME IS MONEY: “She spends her time unwisely.”

TIME IS A RESOURCE: “We’re almost out of time.”

(BOUNDED) TIME IS A CONTAINER: “He did it in three minutes.”

TIME IS A PURSUER: “Time will catch up with him.”

TIME IS A CHANGER: “Time heals all wounds.”

A SCHEDULE IS A MOVING OBJECT: “He was behind (the) schedule.”

from George Lakoff, Jane Espenson, and Alan Schwartz (1991 unpublished manuscript). Master Metaphor List. 2nd edition, second draft copy.

Studying these metaphors and other linguistic artifacts can illuminate the limitations of our processing of matters temporal. Recently I’ve been wondering why we say “all the time” as in “getting better all the time” rather than “all of time” or “everywhen”. I haven’t been able to find any literature on this (please tell me if you know of any) and I hope to post about it later.


6 thoughts on “metaphors for time in English

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by kelli shewmaker and Alex Holcombe. Alex Holcombe said: metaphors for time in English: […]

  2. These don’t strike me as separate metaphors. Time as money and as resource seem to be the same thing (particularly since no one seems to suggest that one could earn interest on saved time).
    Meanwhile, the spatial metaphors all seem to put the future in front of us. Something “up ahead” isn’t above you, it’s in front of you. Thanksgiving could loom on the horizon (or pass without incident) whether the ego is moving or the landscape is moving relative to the ego.

  3. Thanks Todd,
    You may be right that time as money and resource may be the same thing. It’s not clear to me whether Lakoff et al. had any reason to list them separately, or this was simply a conservative way to compile the “running out of time” instance in case it is different.
    About the spatial metaphors, this seems to be a tricky business. You may be right that all the “up”-mentioning instances are based on things far ahead of you being higher in the visual field, as with the horizon (in fact under a spatial metaphors section they list ‘up’ as being a metaphor for ‘in front’ for this reason). However it’s not clear that explains ‘coming up’, as literally that means something’s moving upward, although perhaps it’s just shorthand for ‘coming from up’?
    You also refer to the issue of whether we are moving through time or time is moving past us. Some writers make a big deal out of this distinction, but as vision scientists we know how easy it is to switch between the two, as when sitting on a train and being confused as to whether the adjacent train is moving past you or you are moving backwards.
    By the way, even when the notion of these metaphors don’t match our intuition of how we think about time, they might reflect an old way of thinking about it that got fossilized in the language. Although an up-down axis for time sounds very foreign to me, apparently among many Chinese speakers it is common and predominates over the front-back one!
    Do you have any thoughts on why we say “all THE time” instead of “all OF time” or “all the timeS” or “everywhen”?

    • Indeed, according to “Cognition in the Wild”, Polynesian navigators conceived of oceanic travel as keeping the canoe in one place while the ocean moved under it.

      I’m reluctant to map linguistic expressions directly to our intuitions, given that language does get fossilized, and over time expressions come to reflect habit more than an active way of thinking about things.

      I don’t know where “all the time” comes from, although one hypothesis would be that it comes from a time when English used articles more than it does now.

  4. […] in an environment (Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, 1980). For example, the concept of “time” is described almost entirely in metaphorical language that views time as an object with spatial dimensions. We metaphorically recognize the future as […]

  5. “All the time” It’s a mix-up of time and space. It usually means “all instances” It’s easy to mix them up. Time (continuous) and space (more discrete, m) can be quantified in terms of the same metric, information theory. See my chapter: Information theory: A solution to two big problems in the analysis of behavior. In Harzem, et al, 1981, Wiley.

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