Like Sands Through the Hourglass

Language and how we use it.
Feb. 19 1998 3:30 AM

Like Sands Through the Hourglass

At the end of the day, what does it all mean?

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"At the end of the day," a Wall Street Journal editorial writer observed recently about campaign reform, "we remain skeptics, less so of McCain-Feingold than of its advocates' professions of nonpartisanship." "At the end of the day," the Financial Times noted a few weeks ago, after the European Union voted once again to keep Turkey at arm's length, "it is a greater loss to Europe than it will ever be for Turkey." "At the end of the day," a sportswriter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel presciently pointed out in advance of professional football's 1998 championship game, "what the AFC primarily has going for it in the Super Bowl is the law of averages."

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What is this "day" that everyone is referring to? It is not so much a unit of time as a unit of consummation, and it highlights, in a way, our larger confusion about what chronological time is and what measuring it is good for.

The planet's most accurate time is kept by an atomic clock maintained at the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. The clock is so accurate that every so often the time must be adjusted by adding a "leap second" to account for the gradual, if modest, slowing of the Earth's rotation. (This last happened on June 30, 1997. It will need to happen again sometime next year.) The idea that time's passage has an objective dimension connected with diurnal rhythms is, of course, increasingly quaint, and may eventually become obsolete. Isaac Asimov, in his futuristic Foundation Trilogy novels, imagined a thickly settled universe where the familiar "24-hour day" is an accepted convention, presumably based on the rotation of humanity's planet of origin--but where no one remembers any longer what the original planet was.

In language, too, time seems to have got out of hand. Temporal language often depicts the passage of time not merely as fast, relentless, and irrevocable but also, more and more, as conceptually slippery. The term our times and its portentous relative our time (as in "one of the most important movies/books/recordings of our time") are rhetorically vast but temporally indeterminate, even as they become trivialized by overuse. (One Texas newspaper not long ago called Henry Cisneros, the former secretary of Housing and Urban Development now under indictment, "the most skilled politician of our times.") Decent interval, another modern standby, is an interval whose length no mechanical or atomic clock can measure; the only instrumentation that works is emotional. The Wall Street Journal's G. Paschal Zachary observed last September that America, or at least American journalism, was awash in defining moments (you know, the Gulf War, the Rodney King beating, the death of Diana). At this point in time, a legacy of Watergate, seems to be unequivocally specific, but of course the subtext is that time is fluid, that circumstances change, and that truth could be different a little later on.

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B y comparison, at the end of the day, with the sense of "when all is said and done" or "eventually" or "in the fullness of time," has a shapeliness and finality about it. It has been waxing in popularity since the early 1970s. The term's proximate origin remains obscure--some analysts have suggested an association with the world of sport or finance, where activities are indeed governed by an actual daily cycle and where a metaphoric sense could easily have arisen out of the literal one. As listeners to the BBC World Service can attest, the usage has become widespread in the English spoken throughout the British Commonwealth. An Australian politician last December: "At the end of the day, the Australian people will decide whether or not this country becomes a republic." A Kenyan politician, also last December: "At the end of the day, the ethnic consideration will rule the day." The Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn has theorized that the utility of at the end of the day has been augmented by the various unresolved episodes lumped under the word "Whitewater," which call for an economical way of expressing the thought "when things finally get straightened out ..."

Robert W. Burchfield, the longtime editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, treats the phrase with magisterial derision in The New Fowler's Modern English Usage (1996)--he dismisses it as "one of the ignoble clichés introduced into the language in the 20c. (first recorded in 1974)." And yet the phrase, though lately putting in overtime, is not so young. The Random House lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower has found a reference to it in a passage from Varieties of Religious Experience, in which William James quotes words of Voltaire, for which he gives the date 1773: "All comes out at the end of the day, and all comes out still more even when all the days are over." That quotation itself calls attention to apocalyptic antecedents in the Bible, where the end of the days or the last days, meaning "the end of the world," is often much on people's minds. Thus, from the prophet Joel: "And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh" (Acts 2:17). And the Lord says to the prophet Daniel, "You shall rest, and shall stand in your allotted place at the end of the days" (Daniel 12:13).

Any cant word or phrase becomes tiresome, which perhaps accounts in part for Burchfield's impatience with at the end of the day. (The word parse, rapidly deployed in press conferences and commentary after President Clinton used an eyebrow-raising tense to describe his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, went from inert silage to spent husk in a matter of hours.) At the end of the day has its good and bad points. Among the bad: It imposes an implicit template of struggle and confrontation where none may exist. It also implies the inevitability of resolution. The good points include its realism: Even as it invokes the traditional language of time, it does not in fact insist on squeezing events into a rigid chronological mold. (In contrast, consider the false concept of the week, which James Fallows in Breaking the News castigated for having become "the basic unit of political time," a status ruthlessly enforced by the weekly schedule of political talk shows.) Also, the whiff of eschatology that the phrase exudes is not inappropriate to the millennium's approach.

Are its days numbered? William Safire, who once addressed the phrase in passing, seemed to think it a nonce expression, enjoying an ephemeral vogue. That was a decade ago. Those inhabiting English's linguistic core may find the phrase cloying, but its popularity in finance and sport, and in the English spoken by non-native speakers, suggests that its colonizing power remains robust. My guess is that it will achieve, at the very least, a kind of status that is going to be conferred on more and more English locutions as time goes on: the status of a native idiomatic expression whose constituency is in fact an international group of English speakers. At the end of the day, its best days lie ahead.

Cullen Murphy is managing editor of the Atlantic Monthly and also writes the comic strip Prince Valiant.

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