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How Quick is a Jiffy?

Our lives are structured around time – we book time, track time, and measure our lives by the passage of time. But how much do we really know about the expressions for time that we use every day? Idioms like “in a jiffy," "once in a blue moon," “in the Nick of Time,” or having “a whale of a time.”

"It's about time" we learned what these mean.

It'll be done in a Jiffy

Doing something “in a jiffy,” is generally understood to be very fast. But most of us probably didn’t realize that a “jiffy” is a concrete, measurable unit. It’s used by scientists in different ways to denote a very, very tiny amount of time. For physicists, it measures how long it takes for light to travel one femtometer -- a millionth of a millionth of a millimeter (that’s pretty fast). A “jiffy” is also used by electrical engineers to measure the length of a single cycle of alternating current where it equals 17 milliseconds. In computer science, a jiffy equals one-to-ten milliseconds.

So, the next time you promise to do something in a Jiffy you’d better have your running shoes on.

In a Few Shakes

“Be back in a shake” is also a real unit of measurement, just like the “jiffy.” In physics, a "shake" is the unit of time used to measure one step of a nuclear chain reaction. This equals 10 nanoseconds (10 billionths of a second). So technically, it would be impossible for a human to do anything "in a few shakes,” but certain indomitable people will try (you know who you are.)

In the Nick of Time

If it happened in the nick of time it happened at the very last possible moment. The saying goes back to the 16th century when the Tudors reigned in England. A “nick” was a small notch or cut on measuring sticks used to record extreme precision. So, something happening in a "nick" would mean it happened very close to the beginning. Before the 16th century, “in the nick” was interchangeable with the phrase “pudding time” to refer to something that happens first, because pudding (a savory dish of meat) was the first portion served during Medieval meals. Eventually, pudding came to connote sweet dishes served last (dessert), so “in the nick” came to mean “right at the end.”

It'll be a Whale of a Time

This saying doesn't refer to a unit of time, but rather explains the quality of time. The origins of this idiom are murky. It likely came from whalers to describe a prized event that happens rarely. The idiom began popping up at the end of the 19th century to describe someone exceptionally skilled or brilliant, as in, “He’s a whale in his field.” It was also used to describe something very large, as in, “a whale of a crowd,” or finally, something very cheery, like “a whale of a time.”

At the Crack of Dawn

No surprise here. This 19th-century saying originated as “at the crack of day,” which would refer to something happening when the thin line of sunlight appears to make a bright crack in the sky just as the sun appears over the horizon.

Once in a Blue Moon

A “blue moon” refers to the second full moon in the same month. It’s actually not that rare – it happens once every 2.5 years on average. The last one happened on November 30, 2021.

The color blue in “blue moon” dates back to the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883, which caused the moon to appear blue for nearly two years.

The Bible mentions Time a lot too

(579 times in the American Standard Version).

There are times for seasons, a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant and to pluck up what’s planted. There are times for God’s promises and there’s the fullness of time.

There was also a time before there was time (Jude 1:25) and there will be a time without end.

But the most important time of all is the time called Today -- we’re not promised any other.


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