Tempus Fugit – Origin & Meaning in English

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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.

Other languages influenced many words and phrases in English or were even borrowed directly and adapted into English. Tempus fugit is one such example. It is a Latin phrase that has entered the language unchanged, which makes it a loan phrase, also known as a borrowed phrase.

Let’s learn about its definitions and origin and how to use it in a sentence.

What Does Tempus Fugit Mean?

Tempus Fugit Origin Meaning in English 1

Tempus fugit is often translated as the phrase time flies, an idiom well-known to English speakers. However, the word fugit is most adequately translated in English as flees, making the meaning more about the idea of swiftly passing time.

Considered a loan phrase, tempus fugit was often included on the faces of sundials, as well as the longer sentiment tempus fugit velut umbra, which means time flees like a shadow. Today, tempus fugit is used as an admonition that one is wasting time or as a lamentation about getting older.

Use the term in the following scenarios:

  • To push someone to take action quickly.

Example: “This is last-minute information, so tempus fugit, a decision needs to be made tonight to secure your spot for travel.”

  • To end the procrastination of action.

Example: “I know the situation is uncomfortable, but tempus fugit —you can’t afford to lose any more time by failing to address the issue.”

  • To refocus someone away from an important issue.

Example: “I know this is an interesting subject, but we only have so much time to complete this project and tempus fugit.”

  • When you want someone to stop wasting time.

Example: “Aren’t you aware that you are not getting ahead, that tempus fugit, and your choices now might hold you back from the future you desire?”

  • When you want to encourage somebody.

Example: “I want to commend you on your acknowledgment of tempus fugit when creating this schedule; it is an excellent example of taking advantage of the resources that will get you ahead.”

Tempus Fugit Origins

Tempus Fugit Ngram
Tempus Fugit usage trend.

Although the phrase seems to have made its way into English as a popular adaptation of the Latin saying during the mid-18th century, the use of tempus fugit is thousands of years old.

Virgil, a Roman poet, first published a variation of the phrase between 35 and 29 BC in the third book of Georgics, a poetic dissertation on the proper care of the land and farm animals. It was written originally as “Sed fugit interea, fugit inreparabile tempus,” translated as “but time meanwhile is fleeing, fleeing beyond recall.”

During the 16th through 18th centuries, Latin was a prime choice of study for wealthy, educated families. It was a common lesson taught to the boys (and some girls) of affluent households. It is no surprise that certain words and phrases were borrowed in their exact, ancient form.

Let’s Review

Tempus fugit is a borrowed Latin phrase that has not changed meaning or use for thousands of years. It means that time flees and not to waste it lest you lose it. Its meaning has not changed since it first debuted with Virgil, a Roman Poet.

Use the phrase to indicate a rushing of time, either to encourage somebody to use their time wisely or chastise somebody on their wasted time.

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