By Dr Oliver Tearle
Delaying something is common in all areas of life: a train might be delayed, the completion of a piece of work might be delayed, or even – thinking in a more abstract sense – happiness or dreams might be ‘delayed’ as we put their pursuit on hold for some reason or another.
But it’s easy to overuse the word delay. What are some viable alternatives? Below we introduce some of the best synonyms for ‘delay’, as well as some of the commonest antonyms. So, without more delay, let’s explore some alternative terms …
Synonyms for the word ‘delay’
DEFER seems like a good place to start. Its meaning is very close to that of delay. It’s from the Latin differre meaning to carry apart, put off, postpone, delay, or protract. In this sense, it’s been in use since the fourteenth century, and is still a common synonym for delaying some action.
Common phrases for delaying something include to PUT SOMETHING OFF, to HOLD OVER, and to PUT ON THE BACK BURNER – this last one being extremely recent, with the OED’s first citation being from a Times article from 1963 about Nikita Khruschev.
Another common phrase for delaying something until a later date is to TAKE A RAIN CHECK, this expression originating in North America in the late nineteenth century. It initially referred to baseball games which were cancelled owing to bad weather: a ticket or ‘check’ would be given to the unlucky spectators who turned up to a cancelled game, and this ticket would enable them to attend a future game when weather allowed.
Let’s return to individual words rather than phrases. Another common word is POSTPONE, which is used more for an event than for a particular action. So a meeting might be postponed or delayed until a later date, owing to illness, for instance.
Curiously, the word postpone originated in Scottish English: it’s been in use since the late fifteenth century. However, it’s from the Latin postpōnere which means to put or place something after; so you place or schedule an event after the time it was originally supposed to take place.
An even more formal word is ADJOURN, which is often used of a court case or other formal hearing (and sometimes of a meeting). However, the word originally meant, in French, to summon someone to a court hearing: the word is from the French for ‘day’, whence we also get words like journal, and meant ‘to appoint a day’. But in English it has always meant ‘to dissolve a meeting’ or ‘to suspend proceedings’ until a later date.
And talking of SUSPEND, that simply means to postpone or delay something, although it’s often also used about temporarily removing someone from a position or office (e.g., suspending a pupil from school). It comes from the Latin for ‘to hang under’.
Perhaps an even commoner sense of the word delay is that encompassed by the handy verb PROCRASTINATE, which means to put off doing something. ‘Procrastination’, as a famous saying has it, is the ‘thief of time’ because you end up wasting time by putting things off: this expression originated in a 1742 poem titled Night-Thoughts, by Edward Young.
The word technically means, in etymological terms, to put off something until tomorrow: it’s from the Latin pro- and crāstinus, ‘belonging to tomorrow’. But it’s now used in a more general sense meaning to put off doing something (until some undefined point in the future, not necessarily tomorrow).
Perhaps because of this specific meaning, though, the separate verb PERENDINATE was coined, meaning ‘to put something off until the day after tomorrow’. There really is a word for everything.
STALL, as in intransitive verb – that is, one which doesn’t take a direct object (so a transitive use of hit is to hit someone, whereas an intransitive use is to hit out at someone) – is surprisingly recent. It’s only been around since the early twentieth century, and means to delay or to PREVARICATE – another way of saying PLAYING FOR TIME.
TARRY has meant to delay or put off something since the Middle Ages, and has been especially in favour with poets, as this marvellous poem from A. E. Housman demonstrates:
Tarry, delight, so seldom met,
So sure to perish, tarry still;
Forbear to cease or languish yet,
Though soon you must and will.
Meanwhile, the verb to DALLY is more light-hearted, and suggests lingering or delaying in a frivolous or even sportive manner.
Let’s conclude this list of great delay synonyms with a more formal word: to TEMPORISE, derived from the Latin for ‘time’ and originally meaning ‘to adapt oneself to the changing times’ (i.e., to keep up with current trends etc.). In time, as it were, it came to refer to people who play for time or allow time to pass until a more favourable moment.
Antonyms for the word ‘delay’
Some common antonyms for delay include to ACT PROMPTLY, ACT IN HASTE, HASTEN, DISPATCH, and other words and phrases which denote swift action rather than putting things off: RUSH, FLY, and DASH are all popular options.