Saturday 5 June 2010

Procrastination is the Thief of Meaning

People are liars, always have been always will be. They say they'll do something straight away and then they don't. I am no better than the rest. If I tell you that I'm going to do something Right now, you can be pretty much guaranteed to discover me half an hour later lying in a hammock with a glass of Pimms and a copy of Ulysses open at the first page.

This has linguistic consequences. Do you know what the Anglo-Saxon for immediately is?


But so many people over the last millennium have promised to do something sóna that the word has become the modern English soon.

The same has happened to in a minute. Though there is a perfectly precise time mentioned in the phrase I would probably use it to mean anything up to... half an hour? Certainly no more than an hour.

I think I'm a little better with in a second. But it probably still means anything up to five minutes. In fact, I can't say in a second in a second, which means that the phrase is in itself untrue. I might as well say, "I cannot speak."

Listen to the radio or watch the gogglebox and you're as likely as not to hear a phrase like "In a moment we'll be talking to Lord Lucan, but first here's the weather/The Archers/The Ring Cycle."

We are so lazy, so indolent, so idle so incurably languorous that we cannot be trusted with words. Anon, as in I'll see you anon, also meant straightway or in one, now it wanders in unlimited futurity.

So what to do? We need a new and unsullied measurement of time. Where to find it? Why, in the notes to The Cloud of Unknowing of course, where else?

The Cloud of Unknowing is a medieval religious work that says, amongst other things that we should really pull our socks up. When we get to the Pearly Gates (incidentally the Pearly Gates are not up in the air, they are the gates of the New Jerusalem as mentioned in Revelations: the twelve gates were twelve pearls: every several gate was of one pearl) when, as I say, we get to the Pearly Gates we will have to account to St Peter for our whole lives: not just every hour, not just every minute, but every athomus.

An athomus is the smallest unit of time there is, or so theologians reckoned, it is the indivisible moment, like an atom, which etymologically means unsplittable, a derivation that didn't help Hiroshima. The idea of the athomus was taken from St Paul, Corinthians 15v52, which is usually translated as the twinkling of an eye. But, medievals being medieval, it had of course been calculated, though I've never been able to work out how. An athomus is, officially, fifteen ninety-fourths of a second.

So there it is. Now I must be off. It's a lovely sunny day and there's a hammock, a bottle of Pimms and a copy of Ulysses waiting impatiently in the garden. I'll be there in an athomus.

This cloud may be unknowing.

P.S. If any medieval scholars out there can explain to me how the length of an athomus was calculated, I'd love to know.


  1. Aah, that copy of Ulysses, open at the first page in so many instances ...!

  2. In 2006, I asked my sister to find out what was the smallest measure of time. I thought it might be the space between two heartbeats but could only find words like arrhythmia which weren't terribly poetic.

    She asked the chief cardiologist of Mount Sinai Hospital. It caused a row amongst all the cardiologists.

    After three days, she telephoned me. She told me off for causing the row - certain cardiologists are still holding grudges - concluding that the space between two heartbeats is called BEING DEAD.

    Now I know it is an athomus. Ta!

  3. I believe that in quantum theories of time there may be even smaller divisions, but have no books on the subject to hand. Quantum Theory basically says that everything can be divided down into tiny amounts, or quanta, so the athomus may have been overtaken. I merely love the mysteriously precise fraction.

  4. I think Wirral Library Service uses it to calculate staffing hours.

    I've always maintained that the phrase 'I'll do it now' is sufficient.' Whenever I do it (being five minutes, half an hour or six months hence) will be 'now' at the time. And hopefully I will do it correctly, so 'I'll do it right, now' is no word of a lie... oh, didn't you hear the comma?