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For a time, a life attuned to the tides

A return visit to a familiar beach house prompts some thoughts on time and the ebb and flow of the ocean.

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A beachgoer walks on Coopers Beach in Southampton, N.Y.

Kathy Willens/AP

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My new favorite website is the one that tells us when it will be low tide. We’re at the beach house this week, and our days revolve around our daily walk from our end of Arnold Beach at Manomet to the end of Priscilla Beach and back.

It’s a walk that can be accomplished only at low tide, and even then there is a stream, running perpendicular to the shoreline, to be crossed. That is best done in my sturdy if unlovely beach shoes, whose rubber soles protect my feet from the rocks without depriving me of the complete beach-walk experience (chilly water, sand between toes, etc.).

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I’m back for the first time in quite a while. Much about the place has reasserted itself as familiar, as part of memory – the beach roses, the way the road turns and disappears out of sight off to the right of the house, the water views from both windows of the room I think of as “mine.”

Other things are harder to summon up. How did we used to know when low tide would be? 

The last time I was here, we didn’t routinely carry little computers around in our pockets. Was there a phone number we used to call? A newspaper listing to check? How quaint those sound.

Observing the tides was an early method of measuring time, as were Earth’s daily rotation and its annual revolution around the sun, and the phases of the moon. 

Indeed, the word tide started out in English as a temporal reference.

The Old English tid covered a number of senses connected with time: a “point or portion of time, due time, period, season; feast-day, canonical hour.” 

The word has kin in several European languages. A close cousin in German is Zeit, which means “time,” and as a proper noun, Die Zeit is the name of a highly regarded newspaper. The German word for newspaper is Zeitung. This corresponds to our English tidings, meaning “news,” and having nothing intrinsically to do with water levels. 

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A quick check online suggests that a number of Scandinavian newspaper names include the local equivalent of tidings, as many English-language papers include “times.”

The Online Etymology Dictionary suggests that tide in the sense of “rise and fall of the sea,” a sense that developed in the middle of the 14th century, “probably is via notion of ‘fixed time,’ specifically ‘time of high water’.... 

“Old English seems to have had no specific word for this, using flod and ebba to refer to the rise and fall,” according to the etymology dictionary. 

The Old English heahtid, which looks as if it should have meant “high tide,” in fact meant “festival, high day.” And Hochzeit, a German word that appears to mean “high time” or “high tide,” in fact means wedding. 

And now the tide is out, and it’s time for my walk. Time and tide wait for no woman.