What Does Turn Back the Hands of Time Mean?

Turn Back the Hands of Time Meaning

Definition: Go back into the past.

Synonymous expressions include to turn back the clock and to turn back time.

Origin of Turn Back the Hands of Time

The word hands in this idiom might seem random or confusing. However, if you know some terminology for analog clocks, this wording becomes clearer. The background of a clock, with the numbers written on it, is called the face. The pointers that move around the face are called the hands.

In movies, a popular way to show that someone is traveling backwards in time is to show a clock with the hands moving backwards. That is the idea behind this expression.

If someone is turning back (moving backwards in other words) the hands of time (the hands on a clock), they are traveling back into the past.

The exact origin of this expression is unclear. However, it seems to have existed as early as the 1880s.

Examples of Turn Back the Hands of Time

turn the hands of timeIn the conversation below, two friends are discussing a mistake that they made.

Scott: Do you remember all those years ago when we went to high school together?

Tony: Of course! It was amazing. I had the best time in high school.

Scott: I’m not sure I agree. We were kind of bullies. Don’t you remember how cruel we were to the students on the chess team? We always made fun of them and knocked their books onto the ground.

Tony: I forgot about that. Yeah, we were pretty horrible. Maybe we should apologize.

Scott: I wish we could turn back the hands of time and undo what we did to them. Since that’s impossible, I guess an apology will have to suffice.

turn back the handsTwo coworkers use the expression while talking about their children.

Richard: My kids are getting older so fast! My youngest is already 8 years old!

Miranda: I know what you mean! It seems like just yesterday I was holding my children in my arms as little babies. I can’t believe that my youngest is already 10 years old.

Richard: I love the age my kids are now, but sometimes I miss having babies. I wish I could turn back the hands of time and experience that special time all over again.

More Examples

This excerpt is about a murderer who says he wishes he had not killed those people.

  • A former tugboat captain who carried out Orange County’s worst mass shooting was sentenced Friday to spend the rest of his life in prison for killing eight people at a Seal Beach salon in 2011. “I can’t imagine the pain that I’ve caused,” [he] told the courtroom, as the families of victims looked on. “Please believe me when I say I wish I could turn back the hands of time.” –LA Times

The second example is from an article about a convicted killer who won release from jail.

  • But, during her Feb. 2, 2016, parole hearing, Kellogg said, “I wish that I could turn back the hands of time and make different decisions. I can tell you that we make choices and decisions we don’t realize are going to lead to a chain of events, the domino effect, if you will, that not only change lives, but ruin lives, that take lives.” –Democrat and Chronicle


The phrase turn back the hands of time means to travel backwards in time, into the past.