Did someone tell you to ‘seize the moment’? What does this phrase mean, and where does it come from?
‘Seize the moment’ is a variation of ‘seize the day,’ both of which means that one should take full advantage of life’s opportunities when they are presented to them and make the most of each moment.
‘Seize the moment’ is a phrase that means “to live life to one’s full potential” and “to take full advantage of the opportunities presented by life whenever and wherever they show up.”
Other ways to explain this proverb are “to make the most of the moment” or “enjoy the present.”
For example, let’s say your friend is always uptight, planning for the future, and working too hard. Their favorite band is playing in town tonight, but you still have difficulty convincing them to attend because they don’t want to stay out later than their usual bedtime.
You might be able to twist their arm into having a little fun by saying something along the lines of “This is the first time they’ve ever played in our town, and they might never come here again! Why don’t you live a little and ‘seize the moment’ for once?”
This phrase is related to ‘seize the day,’ which is an English translation of the Latin term carpe diem. It is also sometimes translated as ‘seize the present.’
The literal translation of carpe diem is ‘pluck (or harvest) the day (while it is ripe).’ This aphorism originates from book 1 of Odes, a work by the Roman poet Horace. We’ll spare you the original Latin version (considering it’s a dead language and all,) but here is an English translation of the section that includes carpe diem:
Ask not ('tis forbidden knowledge), what our destined term of years,
Mine and yours; nor scan the tables of your Babylonish seers.
Better far to bear the future, my Leuconoe, like the past,
Whether Jove has many winters yet to give, or this our last;
This, that makes the Tyrrhene billows spend their strength against the shore.
Strain your wine and prove your wisdom; life is short; should hope be more?
In the moment of our talking, envious time has ebb'd away.
Seize the present; trust tomorrow e'en as little as you may.
There is actually a lot of interesting discussion about precisely the meaning of carpe diem as written by Horace. Some argue that our ‘seize the day’ translation evokes a distinctly American reading that doesn’t capture the intended meaning of the phrase. You can find more fascinating discussions on the topic in this JSTOR article: “How ‘Carpe Diem’ Got Lost in Translation.”
Though the Latin phrase carpe diem is attributed to Horace, the concept was written down before the 23 BC poem. It is thought that the first recorded expression of the idea is in the Epic of Gilgamesh, which is regarded as the second-oldest religious text and the earliest surviving notable literature in human history.
In this text, Siduri gives Gilgamesh advice, telling him to embrace life and forgo his mourning. However, some academics and scholars question whether the advice is to actually embrace life or if it is simply to return to the normal behaviors of Mesopotamian society.
The variations of ‘seize the day,’ ‘seize the hour,’ and ‘seize the moment’ have been used by powerful figures throughout history.
For example, Richard Nixon once quoted a Mao Zedong poem in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, which goes:
"So many deeds cry out to be done/Always urgently./The world rolls on./Time passes./Seize the day. Seize the hour."
Richard Nixon went on to write a book titled Seize the Moment, choosing the word ‘moment’ rather than ‘hour’ or ‘day’ to instill a greater sense of urgency to the topic of “America’s challenges in a ‘one-superpower world.’”
Using the Google Books Ngram Viewer, we see that the terms ‘seize the moment,’ ‘seize the day,’ and ‘carpe diem’ have ranged in popularity over time. ‘Seize the moment’ is the most commonly used these days, according to this source, with ‘carpe diem’ coming in second and ‘seize the day’ pulling up the rear. Interestingly, ‘seize the moment’ was most used back in the early 1800s and became increasingly less common until it started rising in usage again in the 1960s.
How would you use ‘seize the moment’ in a sentence? Let’s look at some examples:
‘Seize the moment’ is a phrase that shows up in a number of famous quotes, and even more, quotes communicate the general sentiment without using the precise phrase. Here are a few examples:
“Among the map makers of each generation are the risk takers, those who see the opportunities, seize the moment and expand man's vision of the future.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
“Get action. Seize the moment. Man was never intended to become an oyster.”
– Theodore Roosevelt
“Lose not yourself in a far-off time, seize the moment that is thine.”
– Friedrich Schiller
“Excitement must lead to immediate action or you will lose the power of momentum. More dreams die because we fail to seize the moment. Do it now!”
– Tony Robbins
“Throw yourself into the convulsions of the world. I'm not telling you to make the world better, because I don't believe progress is necessarily part of the package. I'm just telling you to live in it, to look at it, to witness it. Try and get it. Seize the moment.”
– Joan Didion
“In playing ball, and in life, a person occasionally gets the opportunity to do something great. When that time comes, only two things matter: being prepared to seize the moment and having the courage to take your best swing.”
– Hank Aaron
“Any moment, big or small, Is a moment, after all. Seize the moment, skies may fall Any moment.”
– Stephen Sondheim
“Seize the moment of happiness… love and be loved.”
– Leo Tolstoy
There are a number of other idioms, proverbs, and turns of phrase that have a similar meaning to ‘seize the moment.’ Some examples include:
Are you looking for more idioms, proverbs, and phrases to sprinkle into your writing and speech? Be sure to check out our Idioms blog!
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