Every language has a unique collection of expressions that are easily understood by fluent speakers but may be hard for those less familiar with the language to parse. These sayings, known as idioms, contain meanings that are not wholly obvious by defining the words individually.
For instance, if you’re absorbed in a book or deep in conversation, and you glance at your watch and realize it’s much later than you thought, you might exclaim, “Time flies!” Of course, time didn’t sprout wings and fly away, but it might feel like it did because it passed so quickly. It’s figurative, it’s visual, and it’s evocative—and it’s probably strange-sounding to those learning the language!
Idioms cover a range of common concepts, such as the workplace, weather, and money. And like the one above, there are also many idioms that express concepts of time.
As we dive into this topic, we’ll define what an idiom is and why idioms can be challenging for language learners. We’ll also list some examples of idioms about time.
What is an idiom about time?
An idiom is a common saying that has meaning in its own culture or language but doesn’t make much sense when broken down into its individual components. Idioms about time can be used in many scenarios, such as to describe the passage of time (“time stands still for no one”), to reference a particular point in time (“at the eleventh hour”), or to describe regular occurrences (“like clockwork”).
It’s not surprising that many of the most popular idioms about time describe time passing too quickly, but ultimately, idioms about time are creative sayings that discuss specific moments or occasions figuratively.
15 idioms about time
Now that you know all about idioms, it’s high time to divulge some of the most popular idioms about time. Whatever time-related message you’re trying to get across, these idioms will help you make it fun.
1 Beat the clock
Meaning: To succeed in something before running out of time.
Example: In a desperate attempt to beat the clock, I raced to the post office to mail my college application before the final deadline.
2 Turn back the hands of time
Meaning: To recount, re-create, or return to the past.
Example: If I could turn back the hands of time, I would make sure to put on sunscreen before going outside every day.
3 Once in a blue moon
Meaning: Something that happens rarely.
Example: Because of the tight budget, our manager buys donuts for the office once in a blue moon.
4 Kill time
Meaning: To engage in a rather aimless or idle activity with the goal of making time pass more quickly.
Example: After my flight was delayed an extra hour, I managed to kill time in the airport by perusing the duty-free shops.
5 A stitch in time saves nine
Meaning: Complete a task properly and thoroughly the first time to avoid a bigger problem later.
Example: If I were you, I’d put an extra screw in that wood to make it more secure because a stitch in time saves nine.
6 Time is on my side
Meaning: To have the luxury of not having to worry about how long something will take.
Example: We don’t have to make the final decision until next week, so time is on our side.
7 Better late than never
Meaning: Doing something late is better than not doing it at all.
Example: Misha didn’t arrive until halftime—better late than never!
8 In the nick of time
Meaning: Getting something done just before the deadline; completing a task with no time to spare.
Example: I stayed up all night, but I was able to finish my history class essay in the nick of time.
9 Crack of dawn
Meaning: Early in the morning.
Example: Kyle is always up at the crack of dawn; Amanda is more of a night owl and likes to sleep in.
10 Only time will tell
Meaning: The truth or answer will be determined in the future and is not knowable yet.
Example: Only time will tell whether Jamie made the right choice in leaving their job.
11 Too much time on my hands
Meaning: To have too much free time available without anything pressing to do.
Example: Since she retired, she’s had too much time on her hands and spends most of her days watching old movies.
12 A whale of a time
Meaning: To enjoy yourself very much.
Example: To celebrate my birthday, we went to a karaoke bar last night and had a whale of a time.
13 Living on borrowed time
Meaning: To continue living after a point when you might easily have died.
Example: Ever since his 101st birthday, he feels like he’s living on borrowed time.
14 All in good time
Meaning: Something coveted or hoped for will happen eventually, once a certain amount of time has passed.
Example: Be patient! You’ll get your exam score all in good time.
15 Time is of the essence
Meaning: Time is limited and deadlines must be met; fulfilling something in a timely manner is of the utmost importance.
Example: To keep our customers happy, you need to fulfill the orders and remember that time is of the essence!