No ticking time bomb: why words are redundant

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In recent weeks I became curious about the metaphor ‘a ticking time bomb’.

There’s something about it that does not ring true. Not true, in that sense but not grammatically correct.

There are too many words in the phrase. The offending word here is ‘ticking’.

To say, ‘a ticking time bomb’, is the same as talking about a Catholic pope or a Jewish rabbi. To be a pope it is required of a man to be Catholic so no other religions qualify. The same goes for being a rabbi. If you’re not Jewish, no amount of aspiration will get you to be a rabbi, unless you first convert to Judaism.

Right then, back to the ‘ticking time bomb’. A quick definition – a bomb that is set to go off at a specific time, in the literal sense. In the figurative sense, a situation that is about to become uncontrollable.

‘Time bomb’ on its own, suggests that the bomb comes with a timing device. If we think about a clock, it has a long axis and a short axis, the short counting hours, the long, minutes. The mechanism that moves the seconds over the hands is commonly known as ticking. In turn, it moves the long hand as minutes elapse and the short hand as hours elapse.

In digital applications there is another kind of apparatus that moves the seconds, minutes and the hours after the correct amount of time passes. It is also a form of counting down time.

Let’s stick with the clock and attach it to our bomb. If it’s our intention to have the bomb go off at a specific time, we would set up the clock to tick its way to the final second before the bomb detonates. Unless the clock was broken it would do its job and tick against the bomb.

A time bomb is distinct from a regular bomb, that is, for example, just thrown into a crowd at random. Thus, we already know the time bomb is set against a pre-determined mechanism that will make it know when to explode.

I think that the phrase ‘ticking time bomb’ is overstating it and that ‘time bomb’ does its job correctly. The word ‘ticking’ is redundant.

Watch out for these tricks in the English language and aim to keep it clean, free of unnecessary words.

Liquid soup anyone?

See what I mean?

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