In the old proverb:

Time and tide wait for no man.

Our first record of the proverb is from St Marher in 1225:

And te tide and te time þat tu iboren were, schal beon iblescet.

When it was already considered ancient. As near as I can make out, the Middle English proverb quoted above means:

“And the tide and the time that you were born shall be blessed.”

Thanks to this answer for pointing out the correct translation, and also for pointing out that this is just the oldest tide and time reference, not an actual translation of the whole proverb.

Even though that does not have the “wait for no man” aspect to it, nonetheless the modern proverb is always traced back to the St Marher quote in any source I consulted.

But what is the difference between tide and time? To me, time and tide seem to mean the same thing: see yule-tide and Christmas-tide. (Then again, “good tidings” and “good times” now mean different things.)

But why are they repeated in the proverb then if they are not different? What aspect or nuance does one of time and tide possess that the other does not? Or was this somehow done for poetic effect?

Apparently, Barrie’s idea of this originally being a rhetorical duplication of the same thing that counts as the same thing has some currency. It turns out that there are plenty of mentions of the proverb with singular concordance, as in:

  • Time and tide waits for no man.

That shows that the speaker thinks of them as one lexical unit, as in:

  • Our new President and CEO is John Smith.
  • Peanut butter and jelly makes the tastiest snackwich.
  • Early to bed and early to rise, / makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.

However, in modern times, there are more instances of the proverb with plural concordance than with singular, which I suspect helped the reänalysis of the two words meaning essentially one and the same thing into two words meaning separate things.

  • 1
    Well, time is somewhat ethereal but the tide is a bit wet...and heavy. But also, allliteration. Metaphorically, it does seem bit pleonastic. Vim and Vigor? Spic and Span? Peas and Queues? – Mitch Dec 25 '12 at 19:48
  • @Mitch This is not the wet tide related to rip tides and marigrams and tidal flats. This is the seasonal tide related to yule-tide cheer and good tidings of great joy. – tchrist Dec 25 '12 at 20:04
  • 1
    What exactly does "and te tide and te time þat tu iboren were, schal beon iblescet" mean literally? Certainly not "tide and time wait for no man". – Peter Shor Dec 25 '12 at 20:33
  • @PeterShor Near as I can make out, it literally means “And the tide and the time that were born(e?) together, shall be blessed.” You are right that there is no “wait for no man” there, but the modern proverb is alway traced back to that quote in St. Marher. – tchrist Dec 25 '12 at 20:54
  • 1
    Good tidings to you in your quest for hats. – Robusto Jan 2 '13 at 22:21

Phrases.org.uk concurs with the OP that tide referred to a period of time:

The notion of 'tide' being beyond man's control brings up images of the King Canute story. He demonstrated to his courtiers the limits of a king's power by failing to make the sea obey his command. That literal interpretation of 'tide' in 'time and tide' is what is now usually understood, but wasn't what was meant in the original version of the expression. 'Tide' didn't refer to the contemporary meaning of the word, i.e. the rising and falling of the sea, but to a period of time. When this phrase was coined tide meant a season, or a time, or a while. The word is still with us in that sense in 'good tidings', which refers to a good event or occasion and whitsuntide, noontide etc.

Wiktionary confirms this in its etymology for the proverb:

A figura etymologica – time and tide respectively derive from the Germanic *tīma- and *tīði-, which are ultimately related.

A figura etymologica (or etymological figure)

is a rhetorical figure in which words with the same etymological derivation are used adjacently. In the narrowest definition, it is restricted to specialized uses of the accusative with cognate verbs (e.g. live a good life, sing a long song, die a quiet death). In modern linguistics, this same construction goes by the name of "cognate object construction" abbreviated COC. In its less restricted sense, the figura etymologica refers to just about any sort of repetition of cognate words in relatively close proximity to each other.

Its use in rhetoric suggests that it's simply window dressing for additional emphasis.

Related terms: polyptoton, hendiadys.

  • 1
    I really like your related terms in the tagline at the bottom. – tchrist Dec 26 '12 at 17:30
  • This is almost beyond a doubt a case of hendiadys. +1. So maybe emphasise that a little bit. – Cerberus Jan 3 '13 at 5:08
  • Then "te tide and te time þat tu iboren were" in the ME proverb means approximately "the day and hour of your birth"? – MetaEd Apr 11 '13 at 3:52

Duplication of this kind is not exceptional. We speak of terms and conditions where only one of the two would suffice. In some cases, two apparently synonymous words occur because one had Germanic origins, the other Latin, and post-Norman lawyers didn’t want to be caught out by amateur linguists in any possible lawsuit. In time and tide, and in similar triverbial clusters, perhaps we should regard the three words as a single lexical unit.

  • 2
    And don’t forget each and every! – Jon Purdy Dec 26 '12 at 2:05
  • 1
    Wrack and ruin, aid and abet, cease and desist (there's a subtle difference, but you can't desist without ceasing). – Jon Hanna Dec 26 '12 at 21:49
  • I see some support for the proposition that time and tide should be, or at least sometimes is, treated as a single lexical unit: some of the citations seem to take singular concordance with their waits verb. – tchrist Dec 31 '12 at 21:32

This is a characteristic of Germanic languages: the word for time is a cognate of the word for tide. One well-known example is “Zeit”, time in German, but most Scandinavian languages use tid — which really gives it away.

In Romance languages as well as in several Slavic languages instead, the word for time is cognate to the word for weather.

What follows is my personal conjecture only but I think this makes a lot of sense.

As you may know the original Urheimat of the Germanic people was the Scandinavian coastal regions — after all they call the Baltic, the “Ostsee” (East Sea))

                                         Origin of Germanic peoples

In those times, what drove your daily life was the search for food. If you lived along these cold coastal regions, your subsistence was driven by the tides because you relied mainly on seafood. If instead your subsistence was based on agriculture, your focus was on weather.

  • Thanks very much, Alain. The connection between time and tempo and weather I had of course known but it never hit me that it is the same sort of thing going on there, too. Hope you don’t mind that I touched up your typography a tad. Thanks again. – tchrist Jan 2 '13 at 23:24
  • @tchrist I obviously trust your typography more than mine ;-) – Alain Pannetier Φ Jan 2 '13 at 23:40

Sorry, I'm new to this site so am not sure if I'm putting this reply in the correct place but the best translation that I could figure out using the online OED is slightly different:

And the time and the tide that thou were born in shall be blessed.

Nice to see someone else found it odd that it keeps getting cited for Time and tide wait for no man when even a casual glance shows it's not a translation but merely another instance of the phrase time and tide.


You seem to assume that tide means 'season', rather than 'Canute's downfall'. There's obviously no way to be certain with a proverb, but I think you are mistaken. The first time I heard this phrase was a doggerel rhyme ending 'Get down to the shore as soon as you can/Time and Tide wait for no man.'

  • 2
    Everything I can find on it says that the original meant the newsy kind of tide, and that in modern times, people have reinterpreted it to mean the soggy kind. – tchrist Dec 25 '12 at 23:09
  • Perhaps Britain's long and variably honorable tradition of sea-faring provides motivation for the change. – zwol Dec 26 '12 at 5:41
  • @Zack So you’re saying that would be a sea-change then? :) – tchrist Dec 29 '12 at 17:02
  • 1
    @tchrist: you deserve a thwack, but I'm laughing too hard at "the soggy kind" to be able to wield my ruler with any efficacy. :) – Marthaª Jan 1 '13 at 0:04

"Time and tide wait for no man". This is not repetitive, this is the description of two different physical/sensory occurrences. Time is a cerebral concept and although certain 'rules' have been applied to coordinate the passing of time, it is amorphous and open to interpretation. Tide on the other hand describes the daily 'physical' action of gravitational variations between the Earth and Moon. These variations create changes as well as consistencies in the Earth's oceans and nearby land masses that rise above sea level. Although many tidal 'behavior patterns' can be predicted, it is far less certain than time.

  • 1
    You miss the point entirely. This question is not about the current meaning of the phrase. It is about its original meaning. When the proverb first came about, tide did not describe "the daily 'physical' action of gravitational variations between the Earth and Moon". Back then, the word tide meant "time". It still does in contemporary German (Zeit). – RegDwigнt Apr 11 '13 at 9:26

protected by RegDwigнt Apr 11 '13 at 9:27

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

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