Understanding the Idiom: "what in time" - Meaning, Origins, and Usage

Idiom language: English

The phrase “what in time” can also be interpreted as “what on earth” or “what in the world”. It is a colloquial expression that has been around for many years, with its origins dating back to the 16th century.

Origins and Historical Context of the Idiom “what in time”

The phrase “what in time” has been used for centuries to express surprise or shock. Its origins are not entirely clear, but it is believed to have originated in England during the Middle Ages. The idiom was likely used by peasants and commoners who were often surprised by unexpected events.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, the phrase became more widely used and was often included in literature of the time. It appeared in plays, poems, and other works as a way to convey emotion or add emphasis to a scene.

In modern times, “what in time” has become less common but is still occasionally heard. It is often used humorously or ironically when someone is surprised by something that should have been expected.

Usage and Variations of the Idiom “what in time”


The phrase “what in time” has a few different variations that are commonly used. These include:

  • “What on earth”
  • “What in the world”
  • “What the heck”

All of these phrases have similar meanings and are often used interchangeably depending on the speaker’s preference or level of formality.


The idiom “what in time” is typically used as an exclamation to express surprise, confusion, or disbelief about something. For example:

Person A: Did you hear that John got promoted?
Person B: What in time! I didn’t even know he was up for consideration.

In this example, Person B uses the phrase “what in time” to express surprise at John’s promotion since they were not aware that he was being considered for it.

The phrase can also be used as a rhetorical question to emphasize a point or challenge someone’s argument. For instance:

Salesperson: Our product is the best one on the market.
Potential customer: What in time makes you say that? Can you provide any evidence?

In this scenario, the potential customer uses “what in time” as a way to challenge the salesperson’s claim and ask for more information to support it.

Synonyms, Antonyms, and Cultural Insights for the Idiom “what in time”

When trying to understand a particular idiom, it can be helpful to explore its synonyms and antonyms. This not only provides a deeper understanding of the meaning behind the phrase but also helps to expand one’s vocabulary. In addition, examining cultural insights related to an idiom can provide valuable context and shed light on its origins.

One synonym for “what in time” is “what on earth,” which expresses surprise or confusion about something. Another similar phrase is “what in the world,” which conveys a sense of bewilderment or disbelief. On the other hand, an antonym for this idiom might be something like “clear as day,” indicating that something is easily understood or obvious.

Cultural insights related to this idiom may vary depending on where it is used. For example, in American English, “what in time” might be considered somewhat old-fashioned or quaint. However, in British English, it is still commonly used and may even have different connotations than its American counterpart.

Practical Exercises for the Idiom “what in time”

Exercise 1: Write five sentences using the idiom “what in time” to express surprise or shock at a situation or event. For example: What in time happened here? I can’t believe my eyes!

Exercise 2: Use the idiom “what in time” to ask questions about past events. Write five questions that start with “What in time…” For example: What in time made you decide to move away from home?

Exercise 3: Create a short dialogue between two people where one person uses the idiom “what in time” to express surprise, and the other person responds with an explanation of what happened. Practice this dialogue until you feel comfortable using the idiom naturally.

By practicing these exercises, you will become more confident and fluent when using the idiom “what in time”. Remember that idioms are an important part of English language learning, as they add color and depth to your conversations!

Common Mistakes to Avoid When Using the Idiom “what in time”

When using idioms, it’s important to understand their meanings and usage in context. The idiom “what in time” is no exception. However, there are common mistakes that people make when using this idiom that can lead to confusion or misinterpretation.

One mistake is using the idiom out of context. “What in time” is typically used as an expression of surprise or shock when something unexpected happens or is revealed. It’s not appropriate to use this idiom in situations where it doesn’t fit the intended meaning.

Another mistake is using incorrect grammar with the idiom. For example, saying “what on earth in time” instead of “what in time” can change the intended meaning and cause confusion for listeners.

Finally, another common mistake is overusing the idiom. While it may be tempting to use a catchy phrase repeatedly, doing so can dilute its impact and make it lose its effectiveness.

To avoid these mistakes when using the idiom “what in time,” it’s important to understand its proper usage and context. Use it sparingly and only when appropriate for maximum impact and clarity of communication.

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