Q&A: How long is a jiffy, tick or flash?

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Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're doing time…

Q: Hi AWC, I’d like some advice about odd measurements.

A: Look, if you visit a doctor, you’ll likely find out that you’re in the normal range.

Q: What? Oh, no, I meant odd and informal measurements for time. Can you help?

A: Sure, we’ll be there in a jiffy.

Q: Yes! That’s one of them! When someone says “a jiffy” – how long is it?

A: Generally speaking, it’s simply understood to be a colloquial term for what Macquarie Dictionary lists as “a very short time”.

Q: So, no actual measure?

A: Well it depends on your field.

Q: My uncle’s field has sheep in it. And an apple tree. He spends a lot of time out standing in his field.

A: Um, no, we mean that it was originally used in the field of physics and chemistry as early as the 1780s. The word “Jiffy” was apparently slang for “lightning” and the name was used to describe the time taken “for light to travel one centimetre in a vacuum”. 

Q: Wow, I didn’t even know they HAD vacuums back then. Did it get good suction?

A: No, a scientific vacuum.

Q: Oh, you mean like one of those fancy bagless ones?

A: Never mind. Anyway, today it’s used in computing to define the duration of “one tick of a system timer interrupt” – commonly rounded off to 0.01 seconds.

Q: Isn’t a “tick” also used informally like a jiffy?

A: Again, yes – especially in non-US English. “I’ll be down in a tick” for example. In fact, there are plenty of similar informal words and phrases for short amounts of time, like “two shakes of a lamb’s tail”…

Q: Hmmm… even if he was already out standing in his field, it would take my uncle a while to shake a lamb’s tail twice. First he’d have to catch one.

A: Well anyway, that saying was first recorded in America in 1840 and a century later, nuclear physicists named the “shake”– defined as 10 nanoseconds – after it. Curiously, Britain often says “three shakes” instead of two.

Q: Faster sheep?

A: Clearly. Maybe they have more RAM?

Q: Hahaaa. So, do you know any more phrases?

A: Absolutely. Have you heard of doing something in “the bat of an eye”?

Q: Actually I have. My uncle’s friend used to do face painting at the local markets. She was great at butterflies, tigers, bats – that sort of thing.

A: No, not those kinds of bats. This is similar to “the blink of an eye”. Once again, it’s informally just a short amount of time – however some scientists have given this one a measure of 0.1 seconds.

Q: So no bats?

A: No bats.

Q: My uncle never got a bat either when he played for his local cricket team. They’d just leave him out standing in the field…

A: Um, shall we cover some other informal tiny time measures?

Q: Yes please.

A: Well, something can be gone “in a flash”. The word “flash” dates back to 1560, but it wasn’t until 1620 that it was linked to “a very short time”. 

Q: I suppose “flash fiction” is a short word count, so that makes sense.

A: Yep. 

Q: My uncle likes taking photos in museums with his phone. They tried to tell him ‘no flash photography’ but he told them it was okay, as he’s only an amateur so none of his shots were that flash.

A: Does this uncle even exist?

Q: How DARE you!

A: Okay, fine. Next up, we have the shortened form, “sec” (“I’ll be there in a sec”) – which dates back to the 1950s. Older still is “split second” – originally named for an 1880s stopwatch with two second hands, but later (1912) as a noun meaning a fraction of a second and later still (1946) as an adjective, e.g., “it was a split-second decision”.

Q: I second that.

A: Hilarious. The final one is a word you may not have heard of. It’s a “trice” – dating back to the mid-1400s, when to trice was to pull up and fasten a rope. A single sharp pull of the rope was also called a “trice” – to do something in a very short time. It’s still used today.

Q: Example?

A: Macquarie Dictionary lists its example as “to come back in a trice” – instantly.

Q: Ahhhhh… so THAT explains why my uncle used to steal sheep under the alias of “Trice”…

A: Oh really? And why is that?

Q: Because he was a “small time criminal”!

A: Groan….

Q: Okay, none of these words can accurately describe how long we’ve spent on this subject today, so I think it’s time to go.

A: It’s about time…

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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