15 Idioms for Periods of Time

By Mark Nichol

A body of idiomatic words and expressions vividly denote brief periods of time or otherwise refer to various durations. Here’s a sampling of such terms.

1. After hours: In the evening or at night, or late in the day (referring to standard daytime hours that most businesses are open)
2. Banker’s hours: A relatively short duration (from the onetime tradition that banks were open for a limited number of hours compared to other businesses; therefore, one who keeps banker’s hours has a light work schedule)
3. Bat/wink/twinkling of an eye: variations of an idiom referring to a period of time so brief that it passes while one’s eyelid moves
4. Eleventh hour: occurring late in a given time frame (from the fact that the eleventh hour is the last in the day before midnight)
5. Flash: an instant (from the fact that a flash of flame is short lived)
6. Heartbeat: an instant (from the duration between one heartbeat and the next); usually seen in the expression “in a heartbeat”; by contrast, a phrase beginning “a heartbeat away from” refers to someone being in line for promotion if the heart of that person’s immediate superior stops beating — that is, if the other person dies
7. Jiffy: an instant (perhaps from slang for lightning); also shortened to jiff
8. New York minute: a brief time (from the notion that minutes in the hectic milieu of New York City pass more quickly than those in more relaxed locales)
9. On the hour: at the beginning of every hour
19. Shake: a very short period; usually employed in the phrase “two shakes” (a truncation of the idiom “two shakes of a lamb’s tail,” alluding to the typically rapid motion of the young animal’s tail)
11. Small hours: the early morning (from the low numbers on the clock that indicate the time during that period)
12. Split second: a fraction of a second (from the notion that a second can be split, or subdivided); a split is also a fraction of the total elapsed time for a race
13. Tick: a moment (from the ticking of a clock); a tick is literally a mark used for measure, as on a clock
14. Trice: a short period of time (from a word meaning “pull”); often seen in the phrase “in a trice”
15. Witching hour: midnight or the middle of the night (with the connotation that unsettling or unusual things happen then, from the superstition that witches are about at that time)

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6 Responses to “15 Idioms for Periods of Time”

  • John White

    >New York minute:

    Long ago I heard this described as “the amount of time that elapses between the light changing to green and the first honk from behind you.”

  • Roberta B.

    #3 in the blink of an eye (seems to me more common than the others)
    #11 wee hours v. small hours (an expression from our Scottish heritage)

  • ApK

    I’ve been waiting for the occassion to descibe someone as so fast that he could run a Georgia mile in a New York minute.

  • thebluebird11

    @ApK: LOL!
    @John White: For sure!
    @Roberta: I came here post-haste to mention “wee hours” but in 2 shakes of a lamb’s tail you beat me to it 😉

  • Deborah

    Or, the “wee small” hours, as Frank sang it:

    In the wee small hours of the morning
    While the whole wide world is fast asleep
    You lie awake and think about the girl
    And never ever think of counting sheep

    When your lonely heart has learned it’s lesson
    Youd be hers if only she would call
    In the wee small hours of the morning
    That’s the time you miss her most of all

  • Sally

    And then there’s the great Aussie word ‘yonks = a long time,’ as in “I haven’t seen you in / for yonks,” or “It happened yonks ago.”

    My father will often use “two shakes of a *dead* lamb’s tail,” which does not necessarily mean ‘never,’ but rather “at some indefinite time in the future.” To which I learned to reply “I won’t wait up / hang by the neck then!”

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