Word of the Day: tidings.
“Time and tide wait no man,” says the old proverb. It’s a nice alliterative pair, those two, and we may be led to think that the words are related, since the tide notoriously comes in on time. But they aren’t.
The word time comes into English through French, after the Norman invasion in 1066, when William the Conqueror unloaded into English harbors whole boatloads of surplus words, and instead of throwing them overboard as the patriots did with the tea in Boston, the English people started to use them, and, voila! We end up with French words everywhere we look: place, large, chief, munch, main, very, money, pay, people. Our time is French temps, Latin tempus.
Our Old English tid (long i) meant time, not as duration but as instance. So, if you wanted to say, “That time I decked him,” tid was your word. It was applied to the waves for the obvious reason that they are at their highest and their lowest at certain instances: hence, the tides. Also, if you want to know what has happened or what is happening right now, you’re asking about the tidings. The angel to the shepherds: “I bring you good tidings of great joy.” The word kept its pride of place in German: Zeit, time. You read the Zeitung, the newspaper, to get the tidings. Whether they’re tidings of great joy is another matter.
English speakers have a tough time of it with time when they’re trying to figure out how to say ordinary things in other languages. That’s because the word for time usually has to do with duration, or with a new state of affairs, as in English a long time and a time to be born, a time to die. But it doesn’t always have to do with an instance, or with a repeated action. You can say, in English, I read Moby Dick three times a year, but that would make no sense in Italian. In Italian, you would read I Promessi Sposi three times a year. Sorry – you wouldn’t do that, either. You would read Manzoni’s stupendous novel three turns in a year: tre volte per anno. If you used the word for time, the Italians would look at you as if you were speaking nonsense: how do you read a novel three periods of duration? What sense does that make?
Now the odd thing is that we in English do use our word turn in a similar manner, when we are playing a game. “It’s my turn,” we say, and roll an eleven, landing on Marvin Gardens, completing the dangerous monopoly in yellow, and gloating over our good fortune. But in Italian they don’t use the word for turn then. They don’t say, “It’s time for me to roll,” or “It’s my turn to roll.” They say, “Tocca a me!” – “It touches upon me!” And roll an eleven, landing on La Piazza di San Marco, completing the dangerous Venetian monopoly, and gloating over their victory in advance.