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I was reading my dictionary and I came across this phrase: "Before you can say Jack Robinson", meaning almost instantaneously to be used as follows:

Before you can say Jack Robinson, I took the money and ran away.

I tried searching it in Wikipedia but it simply says that it's a mythical person. It doesn't help much. It provides some hypothesis but no solid evidence.

So, who is Jack Robinson?

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+1 for reading the dictionary. –  Mr Lister Jan 22 '13 at 9:22
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1 Answer

up vote 2 down vote accepted

‘Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable’ offers two or three possibilities. He might have been ‘a very volatile gentleman of that name who used to pay flying visits to his neighbours’.

Again, Jack Robinson was a government minister in the late eighteenth century. The playwright Richard Sheridan was also a Member of Parliament, and in 1780 was attacking government bribery. To cries of ‘Name, Name!’ he replied, looking directly at the minister, ‘Yes, I could name him as soon as I could say Jack Robinson.’

A third explanation is that there was a song popular in the early nineteenth century called ‘Jack Robinson’. It tells how the sailor Jack Robinson returned to find his lady married to another:

. . . says she, ‘I couldn’t wait,

For no tidings could I gain of you Jack Robinson.’

‘But to fret and stew about it’s all in vain,

I’ll get a ship and go to Holland, France or Spain.

No matter where; to Portsmouth I’ll ne’er come again,’

And he was off afore you could say Jack Robinson.

Take your pick. They’re all equally likely or unlikely.

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