Time's forelock

A few years ago, restless in the reference section of a library, I picked up a dictionary of proverbs and turned to the section on time. I found mostly familiar themes: time flies, flows, and flees; it's a thief, a destroyer, and a healer. But something unexpected caught my eye, too: a series of proverbs mentioning time’s “forelock.” Apparently, time—ahem, Time—was once widely personified as bald in back but with a prodigious lock of hair in front. It's a bizarre and puzzling image: Why would time sport such a distinctive hairstyle? After a minute I shut the book, no answer in sight. 

Detail of Time's forelock from William Blake's 'Young's Night Thoughts' (page 17), circa 1797.

Flash forward to a few weeks ago. The peculiar image came back to me and with it the puzzle I never solved. I then realized with what felt—pathetically—like insight: The internet probably knows why time had a forelock. And, of course, the internet does know. 

So here is the answer. To understand the proverb, all you have to do is envision a simple scene. Time is a man (in the above image, but elsewhere a woman), and he is running toward you. This is a common enough idea, one we evoke in everyday language when we talk of the “coming months” or of deadlines “approaching." As Time nears, your only chance to grab him is when he’s right in front of you, with that lonely hank of hair within reach. If Time gets by you and you reach back for him, there won't be anything to grab onto. Thus, as one 16th century commenter put it: "It is wisdom to take occasion when the hery side and not the bald side is proferd."


1. William Blake's full illustration can be found in stunningly high resolution here.

2. Much of what I learned about this proverb I learned from this site, as well as by searching this book on Google Books.