The Zen of Tiempo, Vez & Rato

Time after time by Akors on Flickr (cc)

Some of us Anglophones disdain the phrase ‘at this point in time’ It is a redundancy that probably made its inventor look articulate but which today is so much filler. I once had a supervisor who had very little to say, but she never had to pausebecause she could always use these five syllables when a more word-frugal person could simply say ‘now’ or (when emphasis was needed) ‘right now.’

But if you have been in Central America long enough, the geometric implication of this phrase has a special significance. Think of a point on a number line (called T for time), which has a fixed beginning and, in the other direction, an arrow indicating openness. In our parts, this ‘point in time’ is a like a bead on an abacus, subject to jiggling by anyone who can reach it.

When the handyman says he will be over at las cuatro horas, this likely does not mean four o’clock. In theory it could, but experience will teach you that the reality is otherwise. Four o’clock, as you understand it, is las cuatro en punto. The word punto is, of course, kin to our word, point. Do you see my, um, point?

This immediately raises the question of what plain old las cuatro means. As near as I can tell, it is anything from the theoretical fixed beginning (4:00) to 4:59. If the handyman really thinks he cannot make it by 4:59, and if he is a man of good faith, he should tell you las cinco. Time flies—el tiempo vuela.

All this has less to do with zenniness in the language than with custom. Most of the Hispanic world is closer than we are to a past when psychiatrists did not charge $120 an hour (or some tax accountants up to double that). If you got the handyman to your house, and he fixed the toaster by sundown, well, then, you both got something done that day.

Spanish has two basic words for time. Vez defines the point on the number line marking the handyman’s visit. Tiempo describes the space between his arrival and his departure. The former is, perhaps nine times in ten, seen in plural form, veces. The latter is almost always singular. Veces are instances, recurrences, occasions; tiempo is the abstraction, the thing that is invested cada vez (each time) we do something.

You would not ask someone ‘cuántos tiempos’ does she call her mom in Tulsa each week, but ¿Cúantas veces a la semana llamas a tu mami? Note that vez is feminine, which makes it easy to recall that Father Time is not ‘El Padre Vez.’ The common phrases algunas veces and a veces have a nuanced difference that apparently parallels that between ‘sometimes’ and ‘at times.’ But for ‘sometime” or ‘someday’ I find algún día works, except when my wife is asking when we can hire a babysitter so we can dine romantically at Circus Bar—something we should do de vez en cuando (from time to time).< To express ‘awhile,’ ‘a time,’ or ‘a season,’ you need tiempo. Another word, rato, also means while, but only short whiles. If the handyman fixes the toaster while you wait, that is un rato. But if it takes him all week, with ordering parts and whatnot, then he needs un tiempo or más tiempo.

But tiempo is an overworked word. Not, by any means, as overworked as time. But there is something zenny in el tiempo being the word for ‘the weather.’ There is some logic to this, since weather changes with time. Yet el tiempo describes what things will be like for the next rato, or the rest of the day or week. When we speak of weather in cyclical or geographic contexts, the word is el clima. This is cognate, of course, with our word climate. If Aunt Mavis is coming to Guatemala to visit for a week, you need to tell her about el tiempo. But if she’s coming to retire or open a massage clinic in Panajachel, tell her about el clima.

Reader, I’ve run out of tiempo (Se me acabó el tiempo). ¡Hasta la próxima vez!

photo: Time after time by Akors (cc license)

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