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15 Idioms for Periods of Time

A body of idiomatic words and expressions vividly denote brief periods of time or otherwise refer to various durations. Here’s a sampling of such terms.

1. After hours: In the evening or at night, or late in the day (referring to standard daytime hours that most businesses are open)
2. Banker’s hours: A relatively short duration (from the onetime tradition that banks were open for a limited number of hours compared to other businesses; therefore, one who keeps banker’s hours has a light work schedule)
3. Bat/wink/twinkling of an eye: variations of an idiom referring to a period of time so brief that it passes while one’s eyelid moves
4. Eleventh hour: occurring late in a given time frame (from the fact that the eleventh hour is the last in the day before midnight)
5. Flash: an instant (from the fact that a flash of flame is short lived)
6. Heartbeat: an instant (from the duration between one heartbeat and the next); usually seen in the expression “in a heartbeat”; by contrast, a phrase beginning “a heartbeat away from” refers to someone being in line for promotion if the heart of that person’s immediate superior stops beating — that is, if the other person dies
7. Jiffy: an instant (perhaps from slang for lightning); also shortened to jiff
8. New York minute: a brief time (from the notion that minutes in the hectic milieu of New York City pass more quickly than those in more relaxed locales)
9. On the hour: at the beginning of every hour
19. Shake: a very short period; usually employed in the phrase “two shakes” (a truncation of the idiom “two shakes of a lamb’s tail,” alluding to the typically rapid motion of the young animal’s tail)
11. Small hours: the early morning (from the low numbers on the clock that indicate the time during that period)
12. Split second: a fraction of a second (from the notion that a second can be split, or subdivided); a split is also a fraction of the total elapsed time for a race
13. Tick: a moment (from the ticking of a clock); a tick is literally a mark used for measure, as on a clock
14. Trice: a short period of time (from a word meaning “pull”); often seen in the phrase “in a trice”
15. Witching hour: midnight or the middle of the night (with the connotation that unsettling or unusual things happen then, from the superstition that witches are about at that time)


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