There's no timelike 'right now'

Another pleasant fight looms, and I need all the help I can get. ("Loom" is a special seafaring term from our blue- water past, and it means the way an island sticks up above the horizon. It's like a mirage in the desert. The land looms for folks on the deck of a vessel coming home from sea, but it doesn't mean the land is just there. It means it seems to be uplifted so you sort of see under it, an oddity of light refraction. When a newspaper has a headline that reads, "Trouble Looms in Payroll Dispute," the headline writer doesn't know what he's talking about.)

My present squawk is about the infinite infestation of the utter absurdity of RIGHT NOW when somebody means "now." If it hasn't bothered you dearly, beloved Reader, pay attention for just a short time when you've nothing else to do, and I think you'll smile at the ubiquity of "right now."

We have a meteorologist on TV who comes aboard every evening to tell us if it's raining, and he's pretty good. As he appears, ready to regale us, on the wall behind him in bully big letters is the word NOW, indicating that urgency has him on the dot, up to the minute. Nothing stale about his weather! Fine and dandy, except that this timely NOW is at once improved into RIGHT NOW, and we sit in amusement to see how long it takes him. No more than seconds, usually. Why? What does RIGHT NOW mean that isn't meant by NOW?

True, meteorologists do not need to be competent in grammar and syntax, which is proved by the fact that so few of them are. But pleasing, gracious language has never yet degraded speech, and anybody enrolled in a profession is better off if he knows a few basic things essential to intelligent conversation. That is, doesn't a man able to stand up and predict a fog-mull know that the present tense means NOW?

Please step to the preschool blackboard and I shall elucidate: "Presently at this time right now it is raining in Skowhegan."

"Presently" does not mean "now." It means so immediately close that it is almost like now. Example: "Presently, it will begin to rain." It is not raining now, but before you get outdoors it will be snowing. Aha! Now it snows. "Presently," in the incorrect sense of "now," is still favored by many people who refuse to listen, or read the letters I write to them. There are those who like "this point in time," and "as of the present moment," and "right now."

Is there a left now? Is there a wrong now? Is there any other kind of now?

"Right now it is raining in Portland." The present tense denotes action or state of being at the moment of speaking. It does not mean yesterday or tomorrow. It does not mean any past or future. As you say "now," now is lost and will never appear again. There can be "another now" or "a different now," but "now" is finite and transient. If it is raining in Portland as I speak, I don't need to say "now." So if I don't need to say "now" with the present tense, I certainly don't need to say "right now" at all. So in Portland it rains. This is good for the flower garden in season, but not right now at the present time because it is winter.

To illustrate the difference between "now" and "another time," I like the story of my uncle and the garage mechanic. My uncle had a flat tire on his automobile and fortunately coasted to a stop outside the Ruggles Garage in our Maine town of Athens. He found Tybald Ruggles on a cradle underneath a truck, trying to start a fitting on the rear of the machine using a great wrench with a long handle. Tybald was so intensely occupied that he hadn't noticed my uncle.

My uncle said, "Good afternoon, Mr. Ruggles, to what do you allude in your mutterings?" (My uncle and Tybald were long-time friends, and this formal salutation was mock heroic, as Tybald well knew. He called my uncle by his full lawful name and added "Sir.")

It developed that Tybald was trying to remove a nut with the monkey wrench. My uncle said, "I dislike to intrude when you are having so much fun, but if you care for my assistance, for 4 cents I'll tell you how to get that thing off."

Tybald said, "I wish you would."

So my uncle said, "That's not a nut. There's no thread on it. It won't unscrew. It's a machined piece that fits into place and is held there by a collar. Put your cold chisel to the collar, and rap it with your hammer. The collar'll break, the fitting will fall off in your hand, and for 4 cents you can buy a new collar and put everything back together."

Tybald appeared doubtful about this, but he did it. The collar broke, the fitting fell off, and Tybald rolled out from under the truck on his little wheeled creeper. My uncle was grinning at him, ready to speak about fixing his flat tire, and Tybald said, "Where were you all day yesterday?"

I have used this amusing anecdote in many lectures I have given at academic gatherings here and there, as I have been variously called upon to advance civilization to ever-yet-higher pinnickels of errudishun and undurstanding in a world forlorneley limmuhtid in its hoorayzons of thot.

Once, in a fiduciary way, again in connection with antiquarian numismatics, I remember a time I expatiated on the vagaries on quantitative irregularities in interspacial quintatics. It is a handy little nugget to keep handy for use at any handy moment. That is, right now. Is there a better time?

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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