Using our heads in time and space

A wordier synonym for "before' shows that conciseness doesn't always win.

Have you noticed the way the phrase ahead of keeps popping up everywhere, in places where plain old before used to do just fine?

It sounds like an alternative to in the run-up to, an even wordier locution, likewise meaning "before," that we seem to have picked up in the global news marketplace. ("Back to you, Nigel.") Both terms are phrasal prepositions that help connect words together in various relationships.

This new usage of ahead of means "before" in a temporal rather than spatial sense, and – a key point – it usually seems to have an event as its object.

Consider, for instance: "The children ran up the walk to the new house ahead of their parents." In this one, ahead of describes a spatial relationship.

But consider: "John's group arrived at the conference ahead of Sam's." In that case, the relationship is temporal, not spatial.

The newly ubiquitous ahead of, though, pops up in situations such as, "The mayor made a major speech ahead of the conference on traffic congestion."

Of the three examples, the last is the one where before could most easily be substituted.

Why isn't it used in the first place? Perhaps one lesson here is the enduring appeal of idioms rooted in words for body parts.

Another is the importance of what linguists and others refer to as "the spatialization of time" – physical distance as a metaphor for temporal distance. We do this all the time: "Down the road, I can see he may be in for some problems."

Ahead of sounds a little more energetic, because it suggests competition, too: If John's group get to the conference first, are they going to grab all the double-chocolate doughnuts before Sam's people even show up?

But when ahead of has an event or some implicit time element as its object, that competitive element seems a little out of place. Is the mayor in a race with the conference?

Ahead of certainly demonstrates that conciseness isn't everything. If it were, the good old-fashioned ere (rhymes with there and where) wouldn't have been allowed to fall out of use as an alternative to before, and prior to wouldn't be so persistent.

Yes, there's a continual pressure within language to compress, condense, truncate: Cellular phone became cellphone and now is often simply phone, as new technologies have taken root. ("Will you have your cellphone with you, dear?" "No, sweetie, I thought I'd go down to the basement to rip the rotary-dial phone out of the wall and bring that along with me instead.")

But the development of language is like beach erosion. The sand dunes and even the great rocks get worn away. But all that stuff has to go somewhere. So the rocks or sand end up on the beach at the other end of the island, or they make a new delta at the mouth of the river, or some such.

In the same way, even as cellular phone was becoming cellphone, other words were bulking up. "Hype," as a verb, for instance, has become "overhyped" in the mouths of some people; never mind that "hype" comes from a Greek word meaning "over."

"Wall Street Tips Lower Ahead of Data." That was the headline on a story the Associated Press ran on the eve of the last trading day of the third quarter (a roundabout way of saying Sept. 27).

At one level, all this is pretty straightforward, at least to those who are in the game: New York stock prices were trending downward on the eve of the release of some important government economic data. But at a more literal level, the imagery all this suggests is awesome, in the original, pre-Valley Girl (or whoever) sense. I picture the pavement collapsing as a lava flow of government figures pours down Broadway and spills over into Wall Street.

But maybe I'm just letting my imagination get ahead of me.

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