The Connection Between Time and Temper

By Mark Nichol

The Latin noun tempus, meaning “season” or “time,” is the source of time and other words pertaining to chronological measurement, but it is also the origin of terms associated with literal and figurative measurement in general as well as some that have related meanings, as detailed in this post.

Tempus is borrowed directly into English only in the phrase “tempus fugit,” an abridgement of a quotation from the Roman philosopher Virgil; it translates to “Time flies,” commenting on ephemerality or expressing impatience.

Tempo comes directly from Italian and refers in English to the speed at which music is performed or to the rate of any rhythmic activity.

Temporary means “lasting only for a time” and has developed into a noun referring to someone hired temporarily; this usage is often abbreviated to temp. Contemporary, meaning “characteristic of the present” or “modern,” literally means “with time.” Extempore (literally, “out of time” and pronounced “extempory”), formally means “without preparation or time to prepare” but has the additional connotation of “spontaneously.” It serves primarily as an adverb but can also be used as an adjective or a noun, although extemporaneous is the preferable adjectival form.

To temporize, meanwhile, is literally to conform to the time by adopting to an established opinion, or to draw out discussion or negotiation to gain time, while temporal refers to that which pertains to time, not space, to measurable time as opposed to eternity, or to secular rather than sacred matters, or pertains to a specific time or to the sequence of time.

A contretemps—the word is borrowed from the French term contre-temps (literally, “against time”)—originally described an error in fencing, from the notion of poor timing, and now refers to an argument or an embarrassment.

Tense, referring to the form of a verb showing time, comes from the Old French word tens, which derives from tempus. (The sense of tense that means “strained” or “rigid” is unrelated; it is akin to thin.)

The noun temper, meaning “composure,” “disposition,” or “passion,” as well as “courage” or “tone” (as in “the temper of the times”), or pertaining to the state of a substance, such as the feel of leather or the resilience of steel—and the verb temper, meaning “moderate,” or “attune” or “toughen”—is derived from the Latin verb temperare, meaning “moderate,” which is likely related to the original sense of tempus, which may be “stretch.” The Latin verb is also the source of temperature, which pertains both literally to relative heat or cold or figuratively to mood or emotional heat. (To say that someone is “running a temperature” means that the person’s body heat is abnormally warm.)

The sense of temple that pertains to the area to either side of the forehead derives from the “stretch” sense of tempus, but the meaning “sacred building” is unrelated.

Tempest, meaning “storm,” is from the “season” sense of the Latin term, as is the adjective tempestuous, which describes not only a literal storm but also turbulent behavior or a stormy relationship. The idiom “tempest in a teapot” refers to an event treated out of proportion to its (in)significance.

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1 Response to “The Connection Between Time and Temper”

  • Andy Knoedler

    Then there’s the oft-repeated exclamation lamenting the changing times one lives in: “O tempora! O mores!”
    This protest approximates to “What’s the world coming to?” and might be uttered by representatives of any of several groups in the world today that feel the tide has turned against them.

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