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!!