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时- shí– time,when, timely
The left semantic component in 时 is the Sun 日, which makes perfect sense when considering the Sun’s instrumental role in our determination of time.
First, let’s look at the three most common words 时 is used in:
▷小时 (xiǎo)- hour
“Hey, Xiao Wang, what should we call an hour?”
“Hmm, I don’t know, how about just ‘small (小) time’?”
OK, so this probably wasn’t how it actually went down when deciding what to call an hour of time, but I remember laughing at this imaginary scenario when I first started studying Chinese. How long is an hour? Well, just a small (小) amount of time (时).
▷时间 (jiān)- (theconcept of) time
▷时候 (hòu)- (amoment in) time
When referring to the most common definitions of the above two words, the easiest way to distinguish between them is to remember that we have a considerably different meaning when we saying something like “Do you have any time?” (时间) vs. “I was fighting crime at the time when you called me” (时候).
The first is just the concept of time in general, it is not specifically related to any moment, whereas the second is reference to the moment you were bringing law and order to your town. If you want to just ask somebody if they have time, you would say 时间 (你有没有时间？ní yǒu méi yǒu shíjiān), but if you want to refer to the time that something happened or will be happening, you can just say “[Insert Event] + 的时候 (de)”, “Fighting crime 的时候, you called me”. This is why the word “when” in Chinese is literally “what + moment in time” or 什么时候 shénme shíhòu.
These four words all have a character preceding 时 that indicates a relationship to time. 当in this context means “just at”, so “just at-time” is another way of saying then or at that time. You’ll use this often when explaining your actions at a certain time in history. Many Chinese learners learn the word for “casual” or “informal” (随便 suíbiàn) quite early in their studies, and that same character 随 when combined with 时 creates the meaning of at any time or whenever, what could be more casual?
按时 and 准时 can both be translated as on time or on schedule, and this makes sense that 按 and 准 both can mean “in accordance with”. The only significant difference between the two words is that 准时 can be used as an adjective to mean punctual.
These three words all relate to things that are timely in some way. For example, the word for “opportunity” in Chinese is 机会 jīhuì,but if you really want to emphases that an opportunity is particularly limited by time, aka an opportune moment, you can use 时机. 时报 could be literally translated as “timely-report” or “timely-newspaper”. No wonder the New York Times is translated to 纽约时报 niǔyuē shíbào. The final word 过时 related to things whose time has already gone, which is another way of saying outdated.
Learning Chinese 的时候, don’t have such a 过时 method for learning characters. Take them one-by-one, and the next thing you know you’ll be reading the 纽约时报 in Chinese with ease.