December 2010

When Santa committed his annual large scale breaking and entering one day in the 1820’s, we are told, he allayed the fear of his early morning discoverer in “A wink of his eye and a twist of his head.”, in short – in no time at all.

While scientists enjoy splitting up time (from nanoseconds to “Planck time”) which all can be divided up again and again, the rest of us mere humans like our time divided into concrete physical attributes which are easy to imagine, such as a “wink of an eye”. In our real world, what’s quicker, on a perception level, than a blink? This got us thinking about our very human time scales.

The “twinkling of an eye” dates back to Chaucer, and a phrase we don’t hear much today, “Quick as thought”, also predates “quick as a wink”, perhaps since folks are thinking slower these days. The OED has a nice quote for “quick as thought”:

1580 T. Churchyard Pleasaunte Laborinth: Churchyardes Chance f. 35, The noble minde that scornes to stoupe, at base and wretched things, As quicke as thought, mountes vp the Skies.

Perhaps then, folks are enjoying those “base and wretched” things too much.

Eyes are big in time measurement – we twinkle and flash and blink our eyes – all suggesting that the event has happened in an instant – as fast as we can comprehend.

We also match animal attributes to time: “two shakes of a lamb’s tail” and the slightly salacious “quick as a bunny”.

Our “flash in the pan” is actually a reference to the flash of a flintlock weapon, where the it is fired by a small charge of gunpowder in what is called the “priming pan”.

Another favorite is the more recent “New York minute”, which Johnny Carson defined as the “interval between a Manhattan traffic light turning green and the guy behind you honking his horn.” The origin seems to be (again per the OED) a news story:

Washington Post 20 Apr. 6 (headline) The New York minute.‥ The speech of President Angell at noon in New York‥will reach Honolulu at 6 a. m. Wednesday and Tokyo at 2 a. m. Thursday.‥ A few brief minutes of time at New York thus become nearly a whole day when spread around the earth.

One quirky one is “before you can say Jack Robinson” which at first glance suggests a time marking phrase like “one Mississippi” or “one dumb bastard”, but it appears to have a mythical English origin, perhaps referring to a tower of London hatchet man or a flip-flopping politician, but it does show up in writing in the 1778 novel “Evelina”:

“I’d do it as soon as say Jack Robinson.”

In the often read but infrequently heard department we have “trice” and “jiffy, as in:

“He finished his task in a trice” or “be back in a jiffy”

Charmingly, a trice refers to the plucking of a bow, as in the middle English “Pluckid downe dere all at a tryse.” while “jiffy” appears to have no direct definition, but it’s first citation is in the travels of the famous Baron Munchausen:

“I cracked my whip, away we went, helter skelter, and in six jiffies I found myself and all my retinue safe and in good spirits just at the rock of Gibraltar.”

Why six jiffies? My guess – it just sounds funnier!!


The Blackboard

The word classroom for most of us invokes a variety of sensory memories typically including an image of the blackboard, the feel of a piece of chalk, the (potentially hair-raising) sound of chalk as it moves across the blackboard, and the smell of chalk dust. And for those of us whose gender may have excluded us from the mysteries of the sidewalk hopscotch court, geometry class afforded hands-on experience with colored chalk f0r an additional multisensory buzz. (Sufferers from the form of pica that involves a compulsion to eat chalk may add the sense of taste to round out the list.)

The first American known to have used a blackboard and chalk in the classroom (in 1801) was George Baron, an instructor at West Point Military Academy; however, the actual invention of the blackboard (as well as colored chalk) is generally credited to James Pillans of Edinburgh, Scotland. The first occurrence of the word blackboard cited in the OED is from 1823. The term chalkboard is widely said to have come into use in the U.S. some time between 1935 and 1940, though the Ergo in Demand company in their essay “About Blackboards – Blackboard Technology and Chalkboard History Advances” ( say that “[i]t was not until the 1960s that the slate blackboard began to give way to boards manufactured with steel boards coated with porcelain enamel…[and t]he use of the term ‘chalkboard’ gained increasing general popularity once black was no longer the only standard color.” For what it’s worth, the OED at this writing doesn’t contain an entry for “chalkboard,” though it does cite as the first occurrence of the phrase “chalk and talk” the following: “1937    G. A. N. Lowndes Silent Social Revolution ii. 36   The blackboard was replacing the reading cards or letter sheets hitherto almost universal. For the era of ‘chalk and talk’ had to intervene before the era of textbooks.” Not to mention the Internet and distance learning.

But back in the day before the rise of the railroads, which made it possible to transport the large slabs of slate from which blackboards were made, school kids able to afford them chalked their A-B-Cs and sums on slate tablets. (The ways in which the blackboard’s replacement of the individual slate altered the classroom dynamic is a topic worthy of some consideration by itself.) The origin of the word slate is obscure but appears to come through Old French from a root meaning ‘to split, splinter,’ while chalk is ultimately from Latin calx, calcis ‘lime(stone),’ itself a borrowing of Greek χάλιξ, χάλικος  ‘pebble.’ (A calculus is, literally, a ‘little stone’ and an early computational aid from which the bane of many a student takes its name.)

Actually, the term the Romans used for the sort of chalk with which one wrote was crēta, a term of uncertain origin that shows up in French as craie ‘chalk’ and crayon (noir) ‘(black) pencil’ (to which may be compared crayon à bille ‘ballpoint pen,’ crayon de couleur ‘(wax) crayon,’ crayon-feutre ‘felt-tip pen,’ crayonner ‘to sketch,’ and, of course, English crayon), the earliest French pencils having been made of chalk and only later (in the early 1600s) of lead—times change and we change with them.

As for what the literate denizens of the Greco-Roman world wrote on, the hand-held of choice for the Greeks was a πίναξ and, for the Romans, a tabula (as in tabula rasa ‘clean [literally, ‘shaved’] slate’). Both  πίναξ, πίνακος and tabula had the original sense of ‘plank, board’ but took on the extended sense of ‘writing tablet.’ The original sense of tabula is not too far beneath the surface in English tabulate and table, and πίναξ lives on in the sense of ‘writing-tablet’ in the Modern Greek term for ‘blackboard,’ μαυροπίνακας (in which the first component, μαυρός, means ‘dark, obscure’).