Ask Mint | Just a moment, please

Ask Mint | Just a moment, please
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First Published: Sun, Feb 01 2009. 11 09 PM IST

Updated: Sun, Feb 01 2009. 11 09 PM IST
Last year we were privileged to witness history in the making. TV channels worldwide gave such wide coverage to the US presidential election as had never been given to any other event in history. The inauguration of Barack Obama was presented by CNN in a website with the name www.cnn.com/ themoment. Time magazine had “US Election: Obama’s Moment” on its cover.
Most of us associate the word “moment” with a very brief portion of time. Other units including minute and second represent a physical entity, with a precisely defined value. But “moment” is laden with associations of victory or celebration. We do not say Obama’s minute of victory, or Obama’s second. We can only call it Obama’s moment, as CNN has done.
It is in this sense that we use the adjective “momentous”, to carry the sense of important or historic; “momentary” is reserved to carry the signification of time. Other expressions that we use for a very short time are “jiffy”, “flash”, “split second” and “twinkling of an eye”. Many whom I consulted said that the last of these represents the shortest span of time.
A curious coinage that I came across was the “New York minute”. An informal expression, it refers to the hurry and bustle that marks the New Yorker’s life. People are impatient with any delay, and this led to Johnny Carson’s definition of “New York minute” as the “interval between a Manhattan traffic light turning green and the guy behind you honking his horn”.
While minute and second are pure time units and moment is an indefinite time unit, the word “hour” shares features of both. “Hour” can refer to 60 minutes, and can also be used in the sense of moment. Winston Churchill prepared the British nation for the Battle of Britain by asking them to brace themselves to their duty, so that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth lasted for a thousand years, men would still say, “This was their finest hour.”
In 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru addressed Parliament, proclaiming India independent. His words were: “At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awaken to life and freedom.” In the same speech he used the word “moment” with profound significance: “A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.”
In the early 1960s, American politics came up with the phrase “Adlai Stevenson moment”. The occasion was the Cuban missile crisis: There were reports that Russia was setting up missile bases in Cuba. Addressing an emergency session of the UN Security Council, Stevenson asked the Russian representative, Valerian Zorin, whether his country was installing missiles in Cuba. “Don’t wait for the translation. Answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’!”
Thirty years later, another phrase, “Sister Souljah moment”, appeared; Bill Clinton can be credited with making it popular. Sister Souljah was a rap singer and community activist who mixed social commentary with her songs. After the Los Angeles riots, she said that if people wanted to kill somebody, they could kill a white person. In a music video, she said, “If there are any good white people, I haven’t met them.” Clinton rebuked her for these “racist” remarks. He also criticized fellow Democrat Jesse Jackson for allowing her to appear in his Rainbow Coalition as a panelist. A “Sister Souljah moment” occurs when one publicly denounces and distances oneself from some group or position normally perceived to be associated with one’s own party. Obama had his Sister Souljah moment when he distanced himself from his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, calling his statements a bunch of rants.
To trace our next idiom, we go to Spain. Bullfighting, known grandiosely as “tauromachy”, is the national sport of Spain; and the sportsmen or matadors are national heroes. The final act of the encounter is called “faena”. Hypnotized and exhausted, the animal sinks in the sand. That leads to “el moment de la verdad” or the moment of truth. The matador kills the animal with a single thrust of the sword that reaches up to the animal’s heart.
“Moment of truth” became part of the English vocabulary in 1932 when Ernest Hemingway used it in Death in the Afternoon. The meaning is now extended to any crucial or decisive moment that puts you to the test. Often the moment of truth is the instant you have to make a decision which may alter the course of your life.
If you pursue the study of moment and the other words that refer to time, you will be in for some surprises. At least one source on the Internet defined “moment” as one-fortieth of an hour, that is, 90 seconds. “Jiffy”, which we regard as a colloquial term, has a precise meaning: It is the length of time between successive microprocessor clock cycles, and can be close to 0.5 nanosecond.
Just a mo’, let me check again.
V.R. Narayanaswami, a former professor of English, has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.
Comments can be sent to plainspeaking@livemint.com
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First Published: Sun, Feb 01 2009. 11 09 PM IST