According to The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, "kill time"
was first recorded about 1768.
"Kill time", from The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms by
Christine Ammer, 1997.
Another online dictionary states that "kill time" is from 1728.
"Etymology Ka-Ku" (listed under "kill (v.)")
Online Etymology Dictionary
Because The American Heritage Dictionary is a more established source,
I am going with that date. But in any event, the dates are reasonably
close, from the 18th century.
I have not found a usage from 1768 online. You might be able to find
it in an Oxford English Dictionary, which I do not have access to at
However, I have found a usage from only nine years later, in "The
School for Scandal," by Richard Brinsley Sheridan.
It seems that "kill time" meant the same thing in Sheridan's day as it
does now. In discussing a local group that was injuring someone's
good name, a character in the play proclaimed, "Ay, I know there are a
set of malicious, prating, prudent gossips, both male and female, who
murder characters to kill time ...."
"Richard Brinsley Sheridan (17511816), The School for Scandal, Act
Second, Scene III", from The Harvard Classics, 190914.
"Richard Brinsley Sheridan", from the Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth
Edition, Columbia University Press, 2001
Here you can see two colloquial uses in a row: "murder" in the sense
of destroying someone's reputation, and "killing" in the sense of
passing time aimlessly.
The idiom appears to have become well-established by the middle of the
The playwright Dion Boucicault wrote in 1841, "Men talk of killing
time, while time quietly kills them."
"Boucicault, Dion (Dionysius Lardner Boursiquot) (1820 - 1890): London
Assurance (1841) act 2, sc. 1", from The Oxford Dictionary of
Quotations, Oxford University Press 1999.
Henry David Thoreau is often quoted for his statement, "As if you
could kill time without injuring eternity."
"Henry David Thoreau (18171862), Walden, 'Economy,' (1854)," from The
Columbia World of Quotations, Columbia University Press, 1996.
And Herman Melville used the phrase "kill time" at least three times,
including once in "Moby Dick."
You can also find later uses of "kill time" or "killing time" by other
great authors, such as Walt Whitman, George Bernard Shaw, and Octavio
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Clarification of Answer by
14 Sep 2002 10:03 PDT
I haven't found a definitive answer to how the phrase "kill time"
entered the vernacular as "to pass time aimlessly". I do have some
"Kill time" is just one of many verbal phrases including the word
"time". You can make time, save time, lose time, use time, spend
time, waste time, and consume time, among other things.
"Time", from The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms by Christine
"I. Words Expressing Abstract Relations: VI. Time: 1. Absolute Time:
In these phrases, "time", which is a fairly abstract concept, is
turned into an object. Time becomes a thing that you can waste,
consume, and so on.
"Kill time" goes a step further, by giving "time" a life that can be
killed. This is not too strange, given that the Greeks thought of
time as a deity, and since we talk about "Father Time".
But the main point is that it is not a great leap from wasting or
doing other negative things to time and killing it.
"Waste time" in particular seems especially close to "kill time",
since its meaning is very close, if not identical, to passing time
aimlessly. And since "waste time" has been in the language since at
least the days of Chaucer, it could have provided a basis for "kill
"Waste" (middle of page, from Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary,
Also, you might be interested to know that "killjoy" entered the
language at almost the same time, in 1776.
http://www.m-w.com (search for "killjoy" in Collegiate Dictionary)
So perhaps there was an idea floating around in the 18th century that
abstract concepts such as "joy" and "time", as well as creatures,
could be "killed" or made lifeless. (Lifeless and aimless seem like
fairly similar concepts.)
Finally, another researcher (thanks Juggler!) has provided me the
relevant entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, which explains why
"kill time" has an origin of both 1728 and 1768. Unfortunately I
don't have the entry in front of me, as the site where it is posted
appears to be down. But I remember the basics of it. In 1728, the
phrase to "kill an hour" first appeared. Then around 1768, the actual
phrase "kill time" first appeared.
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