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“What a time to be alive” — A Tale of two Meanings

“What a time to be alive” — A Tale of two Meanings

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Have you ever heard a phrase that you didn’t understand? Or, worse, a phrase that you thought you understood but that turned out to mean the opposite?

This may seem unlikely, but the fact is it’s fairly typical. The classic example is “literally,” which originally meant that something actually happened but now often means the opposite.

In a hot minute has also changed in the same way.

Today, we’ll look at another phrase that follows this pattern, “what a time to be alive.”


What is the meaning of the phrase “what a time to be alive”?

The phrase “what a time to be alive” can be used sincerely or ironically. Used sincerely, it means someone is amazed by a technological or social advance. Ironically, the phrase can be used to make fun of something they consider to be a ridiculous use of technology or a regressive social change.


The grammar of “what a time to be alive”

At first glance, “what a time to be alive” might seem to be only half a sentence. (In grammatical terms, not a clause but a phrase.) Where is the subject? The object? There’s barely even a verb.

Grammatically speaking, this phrase has a dark secret: its awkward phrasing contains what is essentially a dummy subject.

That might make you more confused than you already are, but bear with us. We’ll soon unlock this grammar mystery.

In English, dummy subjects are things like “there” or “is” that stand in when a sentence would otherwise sound strange.

The standard example is “There’s a person outside to see you.” Here, you could just as easily say “A person is outside to see you.”

In “what a time to be alive,” the word “what” fills a similar role. Essentially, this is the same as saying “what a time it is to be alive.”

Any time you see “what” used at the beginning of a sentence like this, it doesn’t just imply “it is.” The word also acts as an intensifier, suggesting that some quality is extreme.

For example, “what a guy” really means “What a great guy he is.”

Now that we’ve tackled the tricky grammar of “what a time to be alive,” you probably already have a good idea of its meaning.

But wait! There’s more! Let’s take a look at the two ways this phrase can be used.


The original meaning of “what a time to be alive”

The oldest examples of “what a time to be alive” date to the early 20th century, when Hugh Walpole wrote a book called The Young Enchanted.
In that book, a character called Peter gets a job as a newspaper editor.

Filled with excitement at the shape his life is taking, he looks out at the world, covered in sunlight and possibility, and says “What a time to be alive in!”

The use of this phrase today carries a similar meaning. In general, you can think of this phrase as meaning something like “Life is great and I’m so happy to be here.”

However, today it almost always refers to some kind of technological or social advance rather than just someone being filled with hope about their career prospects.

Someone witnessing life-changing technology for the first time or seeing something that they agree with socially and politically is more likely to use this than someone getting a promotion for knowing the meaning of competitive parity in strategic management.

Let’s look at some examples.

Example Sentences

“Today, class, we’ll be splitting atoms with this portable accelerator.”
“Splitting atoms? Holy cow, what a time to be alive!”

Here, the student expresses how shocked they are at what science has accomplished.


“If you think about it, the internet is kind of insane. You can look up billions of pieces of information without even leaving your home.”
“And these days, you can even do it on a phone the size of your hand. What a time to be alive!”

In this example, the second speaker expresses a similar kind of amazement at what the internet and cell phones let you do.


Ironic uses of “what a time to be alive”

To recap, the phrase “what a time to be alive” originally meant something like “Wow, I’m so glad I’m alive to see this.”

However, over time the phrase has taken on an additional meaning which is the exact opposite.

In other words, you can also use the phrase “what a time to be alive” to express how much of a waste of time and resources something is.

This is usually used for technology that seems impressive but is really pointless.

The fact that this expression can mean two opposite things might seem confusing.

However, it’s pretty easy to tell what meaning is intended

Example Sentences

“Did you see that commercial? They’re selling a toaster that connects to your wi-fi and sends you a text message when your toast is burning.”
“Burnt toast notifications… What a time to be alive.”

Wi-fi enabled toasters are a great example of unnecessarily complicated technology.

Does anybody really need that?

The second speaker in this example definitely thinks that the only real question here is whether to use cringy vs cringey.