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Metaphors and time


Techniques > Use of languageMetaphor > Metaphors and time

Internal construction | Time in space | ImportanceSee also


Internal construction

Time is an interesting concept as, whilst it is figures very strongly in conventional science, it cannot be directly sensed. To understand it, we must thus do some internal construction and hence metaphors come quickly into play.

The malleability of time

The fact of internal construction of time makes it a highly malleable medium. It can seem to go fast or slow (using the metaphor of speed) and perhaps it really does fly when you are having fun.

It was a real drag.

The afternoon raced by.

Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana ;)

This malleability means that you can play with the perception of time, both for yourself and others. This can be quite fun and very useful.

Time in space

A very common way of dealing with time is to cast it in space, although we often have different ways of doing this.

Time as a line

Time is often represented internally with the metaphor of a line. We literally see a time stretching out into the future, along which we place the events of our life.

The line may be straight or curved. It may be one, two or three-dimensional. It can be thick or thin, exist in landscape or a vacuum.

Look out into the future.

How far is it to your birthday?

What goes around comes around.

Time as a flow

Time can also be seen as moving by itself, flowing like a river or a stream. We may be caught up in its currents and carried along or we may watch it passing by.

I'm just bobbing along in life.

She's just being swept along.

He's swimming upstream but you can't go back so he's just standing still.

Standing in time or outside it

Two very different ways of experiencing the line of time is either as standing on the line or existing outside of it, for example looking down at it from a height.

People that exist in time do so like a person standing in the railway tracks. The train of time bears down on them as near events grow bigger as the perspective effect is exaggerated by their position. This a very subjective position as time 'happens' to them.

Tomorrow is looming large.

Christmas is almost upon us.

The future is inevitable.

People that look at their line of time from outside it, do so in a more objective way, standing back from events and allowing a more balanced perspective to be taken.

Let's stand back and consider what will happen.

Take a broader perspective, man.

Let's go to the balcony and look down on what happened.

The time horizon

The perception of time is often limited by a horizon. This may be constrained by current thinking or maybe cognitive capability. People who look down on time often see further ahead simply by virtue of their metaphoric position.

Christmas is just around the bend.

Tomorrow is another country.

Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away.

One way to help people see the future is literally is to help them stretch their visible line.

Many people see the end of their life as a horizon (itself a metaphor, of course), and time beyond this is highly virtual.


The past, present or future can have very different, as Hofstede and Trompenaars identify in their cultural models.

The past, present and future can be of different priority, for example with some being more focused on the past than the future (and vice versa). Some people are more concerned with the here-and-now than what might be in the future. This is often reflected in the metaphors used.

Live for today.

Now is all there is.

All our yesterdays.

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, creeps into this petty place from day to day.

See also

Construction of time, Hofstede's cultural factors, Trompenaars' cultural factors, Temporal language


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