Let me show you what makes life at this resort tick.

It's an introductory video that shows the behind the scenes of a resort. All the definitions I found from dictionary.cambridge.org don't fit in this context. What does "tick" mean in this context?

  • 4
    I think it might be more clear if reworded as: Let me show you what makes life tick at this resort.
    – Bubba
    Mar 20, 2019 at 22:18
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  • 1
    You can replace it with "go" Mar 21, 2019 at 6:33
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    The answers all say "clock", so now I'm afraid to post my answer, but I'm pretty sure it's not a clock. It's a heartbeat.
    – Mr Lister
    Mar 21, 2019 at 8:31
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    @MrLister - I think that might be another valid interpretation, but I don’t think “clock" is wrong.
    – J.R.
    Mar 21, 2019 at 10:00

4 Answers 4


This is an extension of the onomatopoeic meaning of tick, as in the sound a clock makes: tick-tock. What makes someone or something tick is what makes them function, except this is generally even more metaphorical than just the tick being a metaphor. If you "know what makes Jeff tick", then you know how his mind works, how he will act, how to provoke him into doing what you want him to do, how to do things he will appreciate, and so on.

Essentially, it's a set phrase - "what makes ... tick". It refers to a deep and fundamental knowledge about how "..." works.

There are variations that go in different directions, of course. As fred2 noted in their answer, to "really make something tick" can be to make it work better, faster, more effectively. But to find out what "really makes someone/something tick" can be that, or can be a suggestion that a person has put on a false front and you're going to try to see "behind the mask", so to speak.

If something is "ticking over nicely", that's most directly a reference to an engine or other machine ticking over, which means running on idle - not doing anything in particular, but running. It's unclear exactly how we got that expression, whether it also comes from the noise of a clock, but I suspect so. Using that reference means something is functioning and continuing to function without any particular intervention. If it is "just about ticking over" it is barely continuing to function.

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    I have a personal theory that it's a metaphor from watches and timepieces-- "What makes a watch tick?" meaning, how does it work, internally, which you can't see? What are the pieces that work together making the ticking sound?
    – user151841
    Mar 20, 2019 at 16:45
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    That's the metaphor I was alluding to, yes.
    – SamBC
    Mar 20, 2019 at 17:15
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    I find its use here a bit off, though. If one were talking about what it takes to keep a resort running, it would fit, but it sounds like it's just talking about the main attractions of the resort. Mar 20, 2019 at 21:20
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    @Accumulation: Well, I didn't say the writer used it well... but given that it's said to be "behind the scenes" at the resort, I'd say it is about what it takes to keep it running. At least, given the words and that description of the context, that seems most likely.
    – SamBC
    Mar 20, 2019 at 21:59
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    It is also possible to refer to a person as "ticking over nicely", meaning that they are getting on with the job without needing intervention. I suppose because it crosses the bridge between a person and object, as the person is behaving machine-like (clock-like).
    – Andy G
    Mar 21, 2019 at 10:47

It is a common idiom, but checking Cambridge Dictionary, I can appreciate why you couldn't find it.

There are various idiomatic phrasal verbs that this usage is related to.

Things are ticking along.

The business is ticking over.

Both arise from the metaphor of an engine idling - 'ticking over', but not doing anything much. It also relates to the ticking of a clock as a metaphor for being 'alive', 'working', 'healthy'.


To really make something tick.

Has a a more positive sense of 'vibrant', 'lively'.

So the meaning of your sentence is:

Let me show you what makes life a this resort so lively.

  • I'd agree more if the quote in the question had the word really. Hard to tell exactly what sense is meant by the quote without more context, I suppose.
    – SamBC
    Mar 20, 2019 at 14:36
  • I think you're probably right that the writer intended the sense of what makes it lively. But to my mind it's a bad choice of metaphor, given that we normally only use tick to mean function smoothly and quietly, at some low "standby" level (tick over) OR function as an "integrated whole", with a comprehensible mechanism of interlocking gears (what makes him tick) - where in the second sense the gear cogs metaphorically represent something like "motivations”. He might have been better advised to use metaphoric hum or similar. Mar 20, 2019 at 14:40

The metaphor is a clock. To understand what makes a clock tick is to understand how a clock works, springs, cogs and so forth.

To understand what makes a person tick is to understand their motivations, the way they think, their biases and fears, and so forth.

To understand what makes "life at this resort tick" means to understand the things that make the events which constitute the "life" of the resort happen.

That may not necessarily mean the mechanical things like food, janitors, maids changing towels, but might mean what underlies the social events, or personal intrigue, or whatever constitutes the "life" of the resort, which is a metaphor in itself.


Replace the tick with any of the following words:

  • work
  • thrive
  • move
  • succeed
  • survive

based on the circumstances.

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