Though it's only mentioned in Urban Dictionary, I know the meaning of "island time", which is more or less where the locals aren't too stressed about being on time.

But what's the origin of the phrase? Which island or islands were originally referred to?

  • 1
    I have encountered the expression used on Isla de Roatán (off Honduras), the one Caribbean island that I have visited often; but my hunch would be that the island that most inspired it would be Jamaica. Commented Feb 9, 2016 at 22:34

3 Answers 3


Island time is one of those delightful double entendres:

  • On the one hand it refers to pace, a certain slack attitude towards the clock. But it also refers to time well spent, away, in a place that refreshes the spirit and cleanses the soul.

  • If you have ever been to an island in the Caribbean you have slowly sauntered up to the more famous version of island time. That’s the one where the local population knows a clock exists, but their time zone is never in synch with yours.


It was probably originally associated with the Caribbean islands:

  • No doubt about it, "Caribbean time" or "island time," can be frustrating. After rushing to put things in order at work, dashing around to shop and then pack, and hurrying to the airport, many visitors arrive in the Caribbean in warp drive.

  • Some quickly get upset when islanders don't share the same sense of time pressure. Others become angry if locals don't respond as promptly or as efficiently to every request as employees or service personnel do back home.


  • Ngram shows usage with the connotations cited above roughly from the 80s. My impression is that the expression has developed with mass tourism which became popular in those years.

The earliest idiomatic use of "island time" that a Google Books search finds is from Dewey Ganzel, "Chronology in Robinson Crusoe," in Philological Quarterly, volume 40 (1961) [combined snippets]:

Crusoe spent many days salvaging the ship and months securing his habitation on the island, and after he had "made ... a table and a chair" (p. 76) on November 12 (p. 79), he began a journal (p. 76), making entries retroactively for the period September 30–November 12, briefly recounting his labors under datelines, and making almost daily entries thereafter (with a hiatus from January 3 to April 16) until July 4 {1660} (p. 106), when his entries became more infrequent, ceasing finally, when his ink began to fail, with an entry for the first anniversary of his arrival, September 30 {1660} (p. 114). Thereafter the chronology adopts "island time," e. g., "in the third year of my being here" (p. 160), using day-month dates only rarely. Crusoe kept his calendar by means of notches on a crossed stick; this was his sole means of determining days of the month, and he discovered years after that he had lost a day or two in his account (pp. 104, 115).

This is clearly not the sense of "island time" as relaxed, unhurried, and (for some interested parties) catered that emerged somewhat later.

The next-earliest match uses the term in a more familiar way. From John Keats, "The Magic Isolation of Island Life," in Travel & Leisure, volume 4 (1974) [combined snippets]:

Fishing is both work and fun for author John Keats. He and his wife live on the top floor of the white boathouse (at left in photograph on opposite page), and Keats writes in his studio, surrounded by pines, on the other end of the island. The different beat of island time allows the writer quiet moments to read in his rocker on the boathouse porch (above).

This time, the island in question is one of the Thousand Islands in the St. Lawrence River, the waterway that (along with Lake Ontario) serves as the border between New York and Ontario.

Next, two matches for "island time" in more-or-less the modern idiomatic sense appear in 1983. From Linda Levine & Garfield Barbach, The Intimate Male (1983):

When we were meeting cross country, we'd fly in and have forty-eight hours with no other agenda except us. We called it "island time" because it felt like being off on an island together. ... Now, in order to recreate that, we go away for at least one weekend out of a month. Or we create "island time" in our own home.

From "Planning for the Virgins" in Yachting (February 1983):

Whenever I'm asked what someone should pack for their week's cruise in the V.I. I answer, "Not much." It's difficult to explain the lifestyle adopted once you get on "island time" and what few things you really need. Casual, casual, casual and light is the best way to go. Days are spent primarily in bathing suits and tee-shirts with the occasional addition of shorts and shoes for shoreside visits.

By 1985, Port Aransas, Texas, was using "Living [or Live] on Island Time" as a slogan in advertisements in the March 1985 and June 1985 issues of Texas Monthly magazine. Elvi Whitaker, The Mainland Haole: The White Experience in Hawaii (1986) offers multiple synonymous terms for the difference in pace of island life in Hawaii:

The relative slowness of Hawaiian time is captured in such mainland concepts as "island slows," "Maui slows," "pineapple time," "island time," "Mexican time," or even "mañana." The reference to Mexican time is probably to be expected as the actual experience of most migrants to Hawaii has usually not stretched beyond the boundaries of the continental United States. Here any difference in time code, particularly a slower pace, is labeled, somewhat pejoratively, in recognition of the southern neighbor.

It's worth noting that "island time" lurks in a number of very old narratives, including The Odyssey, where time slows down—or speeds up, depending on how you look at it—at such stops as Calypso's island, the island of the Lotus Eaters, and Circe's island. Another interesting legendary island is discussed in H.P.A. Oskamp, The Voyage of Máel Dúin: A Study in Early Irish Voyage (1970):

Both the episode of the Queen and her Seventeen Daughters in M[áel] D[úin], and its parallel in Bran (the Island of the Women, 62-63) consist of three elements: the island is inhabited by women; on the island time does not pass as in the natural world; the leader of the women wields a clew which clings on the hand of the man who catches it.

So it seems that people have been aware of the intoxicating and time-retarding charms of islands for many centuries, though they may not have had recourse to the term "island time" as a way to characterize until the late twentieth century.


The contemporary idiom, 'island time', has its origins in a generalized sense of the word 'time'.

time, n., int. and conj.
A., n.
IV. In generalized sense.
c. Chiefly depreciative or humorous. With preceding modifying word relating to a group, country, etc.: the attitude to timekeeping associated with the specified type of people, usually implying a relaxed, haphazard, or unreliable approach to punctuality, keeping to a schedule, etc.

This definition is supported with exemplifying quotes citing Indian time (1936), Maori time (1945), Mexican time (1972), Gay people time (1992), and island time (2005) in the particular use.

This generalized sense of the word 'time' encourages even more specific applications, such as to individuals, as the 2005 quote exemplifying island time also shows:

M. H. Smith Delicious x. 118 Wilson was late, as usual... There was island time, usually a good fifteen to twenty minutes slow; and there was Wilson time. That was whenever he got around to it or felt like it.

["time, n., int., and conj.". OED Online. December 2015. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/202100?rskey=EmVCjh&result=3&isAdvanced=true (accessed February 10, 2016). Internal quote emphasis mine.]

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.