– “Proposal for a New University,” Universal Magazine of Knowledge and Pleasure (1793)
Killing time may have gotten started as an expression without an underlying image. That is, killing just meant “getting ride of” without any imagined ax falling, no bullet fired, no poison pellets sprinkled in the garden against the hateful snails of time. In the context of killing time, Time is not so much a creature as a circumstance – like winter in Siberia or a train ride across Nebraska. It is a tedious emptiness, “a vast wasteland” (as FCC chairman Newton Minnow famously said of television). Kids of the first TV generation used to say, “There’s nothing on.”
Religious writers in the 1800s railed against killing time. Daydreaming, card playing, and following the latest fashions were a sinful waste, they said, when you didn’t know how many days you had left in this world to seek salvation. Waste is easy to visualize: a spoiled crop, a village fallen to ruin, a treasure buried and forgotten.
Shakespeare’s Richard II makes the metaphor personal: “I wasted time, and now doth time waste me” (V.v.49).