A wry view of life for the world-weary

What Is The Origin Of (87)?…


In a trice

Over the years we have become increasingly enslaved to time and have developed a complex set of idioms to indicate when something might be done. In a trice is one such and is used to indicate that it will be done without delay. But what is a trice?

The word, which owes its origin to the Middle Dutch verb trisen meaning to hoist, first made its appearance in English in the late 14th century. What it was used to describe was in effect a nautical windlass or pulley and as a verb meant hauling up and fastening with a rope. In terms of the rigmarole associated with setting up a sail, it was a relatively simple and, inherently, swift procedure.

By the mid 15th century it had made the journey from a specifically nautical term to one used in a figurative sense as this quotation from the Lyfe of Ipomydon of 1440 illustrates, “the howndis..pluckid downed ere all at a tryce”. The implication is clearly that the hounds quickly brought down the deer. The idiom in a tryce first made an appearance in John Skelton’s Poetical Works of 1508, “to tell you what conceyte I had than in a tryce…

An alternative is in a jiffy. The origin of this particular phrase is more difficult to determine. The first known use of the phrase in printed form dates back to 1780 and the Town and Country Magazine, alternatively known as Universal Repository of Knowledge, Instruction and Entertainment – where else to look?! It appears twice in the same passage, “most of the limbs of the law do everything in a jiffy…she could turn Sir William B round her finger in a jiffy”. Although the first usage suggests a law system that operates at a speed somewhat different to one I have experienced, there is no doubt that both usages signify speed.

But the more I dug into the phrase, the more variants I unearthed. In 1796 Frances Grose comes up with the phrase in a jeffey in his Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue which he defines as “it will be done in a short space in time” and Richard Cumberland’s The Jew of Mogadore of 1808 introduces us to in a jiffey which happily then rhymes with Dublin’s famous river, “to sweet flowing Liffey, I’m off in a jiffey”. Then we come across giffy which first made its appearance on the printed page in 1822, “sent him flying over the hedge in a giffy”.

The Americans had a variant in a jiffing which was used by John Russell Bartlett in his 1859 Dictionary of Americanisms to define to rights as “directly; soon and by the term in a jiffing”. Charles Dickens uses in a jiffling in his All The Year Round, volumes 15 and 16 of 1866. Another variant is the verb jiffle which is defined by Hensleigh Wedgwood in his Dictionary of English Etymology (1862) as to be restless, adding the rider that a jiffy is “an instant, a turn of the hand”. And then Farmer and Henley’s 1905 Dictionary of Slang and Colloquial English introduces us to jeffey, attributing jiffy to 1793, three years earlier than Grose’s usage.

All very confusing. The most common explanation of what a jiffy was that it owes its origin to the slang of thieves and rogues developed between the 15th and 18th centuries known as cant. A jiffy apparently was lightning. George Matsell’s Rogue’s Lexicon (1859) defines jeffey as lightning. This may be right but what about Wedgwood’s turn of a hand?

Make of it what you will. All I can say is that if someone promises you it will be done in a trice or a jiffy, in my experience, it rarely happens.


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