The Clock Is Ticking or Time Is Ticking – Origin & Meaning

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Danielle McLeod

Danielle McLeod is a highly qualified secondary English Language Arts Instructor who brings a diverse educational background to her classroom. With degrees in science, English, and literacy, she has worked to create cross-curricular materials to bridge learning gaps and help students focus on effective writing and speech techniques. Currently working as a dual credit technical writing instructor at a Career and Technical Education Center, her curriculum development surrounds student focus on effective communication for future career choices.

Idioms are words and phrases that help add interest and analogy to speech and writing. They are used to provide a figure of speech and have a meaning different from their literal use.

Idioms occasionally cause confusion when the audience is unaware of how it is being used.

Clock is ticking, sometimes said as time is ticking, is an idiom meant to point out a passage of literal time and that one should hurry up. Despite its unknown origins, it is a popular phrase that is well-used in English-speaking countries even though there has been a shift from analog (ticking) to digital (non-ticking) clocks in the last few decades.

What Is the Meaning of Clock Is Ticking?

The Clock Is Ticking or Time Is Ticking Origin Meaning

Clock is ticking is an idiom that means one is running out of time, that not much time is left to accomplish something, or that a deadline is quickly approaching. It can refer to anything that is time sensitive such as sitting down for a family dinner, to infer a person is aging.

The phrase clock is ticking is often used to warn someone to hurry up or hustle in their actions or thought process.

For example:

  • Despite booking the convention at the inclusive hotel and resort, the last-minute cancellation left our committee scrambling against the ticking clock to secure a new venue.
  • As the clock was ticking, the students hurriedly finished their exams, hoping to complete them before time ran out.
  • The clock is ticking for the Monroe District concerning the finalization of the school grant, and it is questionable whether they will have the paperwork filed on time.

How Is the Expression Time Is Ticking Different?

Clock is Ticking vs Time is Ticking Ngram
Clock is Ticking vs. Time is Ticking Usage trend.

Although not as popular, the expression time is ticking means the exact same thing as clock is ticking. Although grammatically correct, it doesn’t sound as good as clock is ticking when used in speech or writing.

For example:

  • After glancing at the clock, he turned to the class and tapped his watch, exclaiming, “Time is ticking; you need to complete the survey and submit it within the next five minutes.”

Origin of Clock Is Ticking

The exact origin of the idiom clock is ticking is unknown. The word tick, to mean the sound a clock makes, first came into use in the 1500s, with the word used to express the passage of time recorded by the 1770s.

The idiom clock is ticking came into use sometime in the second half of the twentieth century. Interestingly, the phrase is as popular as ever, even though today, very few watches or clocks are analog and make a ticking sound.

Let’s Review

When you use the expression clock is ticking or time is ticking, you infer that the subject you are referring to needs to hurry up and accomplish something. Although the exact origins of the phrase are unknown, the use of a ticking clock to recognize the passage of time has been used since the late 18th century.