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Commentators were asked to rate Colin Powell’s performance in the Security Council last week. One writer combined two current buzz phrases when he wrote: “There was no smoking gun and it certainly was not an Adlai Stevenson moment”. The reference here is to the dramatic evidence Stevenson showed the Council on 25 October 1962 about the Soviet Union’s positioning of nuclear missiles in Cuba.

New uses of moment in the sense of “a significant instant in time” seem to be creeping up on us all the time. There’s senior moment for an elderly person’s momentary forgetfulness. Zen moment was defined by John and Adele Algeo in a 1997 issue of American Speech as a “state of altered consciousness in a sport when the athlete has a sense of wholeness with the activity and consequently of confidence and success”. Further back, there was defining moment, which I think was first used by Howell Raines in 1983. There’s also Kodak moment, which was coined as an advertising slogan by the film maker in the early 1990s for the customer’s emotional need to take a picture at the right time, which became a catch phrase and is not yet quite dead.

All of these may be the fault of Ernest Hemingway. He used the phrase moment of truth in 1932 in his book Death in the Afternoon, borrowing the Spanish “el momento de la verdad”: “The whole end of the bullfight was the final sword thrust, the actual encounter between the man and the animal, what the Spanish call the moment of truth”. The phrase has since become common in the broader sense of a crisis, turning-point or testing situation.

Such special moments are not so far from the way the Romans used momentum, the word from which we get moment (it was later borrowed a second time for the scientific term). It meant motion, but also the cause of motion and so figuratively a cause or influence, an essential factor or a decisive consideration.

Though the first English sense was its now usual one of an instant of time too short to be taken into account, it could also, though not commonly, be a specific duration — one tenth of a point, where a point was either a quarter or a fifth of an hour — so a moment was a little more than a minute.

Hardly long enough to be momentous.

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Page created 22 Feb 2003