Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

In French, if I want to quantify a very small amount of time (but not fixed: it can be 5 ms or 0.1 ms) I can use a pouième. Is there an equivalent in English?

I'm not looking for an expression but for a standalone word.

EDIT : In fact, I need to create a c++ class which will measure time and be equal to a 1/600s. I French, pouième is a cute word which can means a very small but undefined amount of time. The issue is that I must write english code and that's why I would like to find a standalone equivalent.

share|improve this question
It's just Too Broad. There are so many possibilities (tick, mo[ment], instant, [split] second, jiffy, flash, trice, shake [of a lambs tail], etc.). Even with a precise context it wouldn't be possible to identify and upvote a single, "correct" answer. Added to which my understanding is pouième = très petite quantité, très petite partie de quelque chose. So it's not particularly a "time-related" term in the first place. Perhaps more like a dash, pinch, tad –  FumbleFingers Jan 27 at 15:09
See wink. Also (not exactly a duuplicate) 60th of a second –  Mitch Jan 27 at 16:46
After reading some of your comments below, it seems you're looking for a unit name... I'm having trouble understanding why you'd quantify an un-fixed unit of time. What would the difference between 2.5 pouième and 4.1 pouième really mean? How would that be useful or meaningful? Answers to those questions might spur better answers. –  Gus Jan 27 at 21:09
You can't get smaller than the Planck time. –  Robusto Jan 28 at 3:50
As far as answering your question goes I think @choster has an excellent answer ('tick' is my preference in a software/programming context). But when naming your class you might want to consider 'TimeUnit' which is more general. Taking it further you might want to make the Tick or TimeUnit just a part of your class and name the class 'Clock' or 'Timer' since you expicitly stated that you are creating a class that measures time instead of just representing an amount of time. –  Viktor Seifert Jan 28 at 10:56
show 12 more comments

closed as too broad by FumbleFingers, Andrew Leach, Hellion, Robusto, Mitch Jan 28 at 13:20

There are either too many possible answers, or good answers would be too long for this format. Please add details to narrow the answer set or to isolate an issue that can be answered in a few paragraphs.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

19 Answers

One can take a moment or an instant to indicate a short amount of time; depending on context this may mean a fraction of a second, several minutes, or a period of years:

The doctor will be out in a moment.

Neo-swing enjoyed a moment of mainstream popularity in the 1990s.

Something which is almost instantaneous is done in a flash, blink, or twinkle, by metaphor to a lighthouse, eye, or star respectively. I would consider these words too informal to use in business or technical settings, however. Even more casual is jiffy or jiff, which I would only use in very familiar settings or to children: Don't cry, little girl, your mommy will be here in a jiffy.

If the amount of time will not vary, I might suggest tick, representing the smallest movement of a clock, but undefined. Of course, there is a risk that tick could be misinterpreted as a literal second or a minute. In spoken language, conversely, second or minute do not always represent literal amounts of time; I'll be back in a second or It'll take a minute to get there simply mean a short time. This is extended further in expressions such as the five-minute rule or fifteen minutes of fame.

As noted in various comments, these terms may have specific definitions within certain domains, for example moment, jiffy, tick, instant, and shake on the small scale, and terms like age, era, eon, epoch, and so on at macro scales. Take appropriate care. Of course, no matter how short a time is involved, you'll have someone complaining that it takes forever.

share|improve this answer
+1 for tick, that is used for a very short undefined amount time, can only be used for time but since it's OP's request it fits perfectly IMHO. –  Laure Jan 27 at 17:06
Jiffy actually has technical meanings in some contexts. If you wanted to use it with an indeterminate meaning, you'd need to make sure to avoid those. –  T.E.D. Jan 27 at 17:26
'Tick' also has two technical meanings in the world of Microsoft programming - either 100ns (DateTime.ticks) or ' smallest amount of time the stopwatch is capable of resolving'. –  peterG Jan 27 at 17:57
Jiffy sounds dated to me, and so does tick. –  JFA Jan 27 at 20:38
Cautionary note - Jiffy Condoms used to exist as a brand in the UK, and, unfortunately, I still stifle a giggle when I hear people use the word... damn, my lavatorial sense of humour is immature sometimes. Still, the point is that you should be selective in where you use this. (they had the most fantastic commercials though) –  rolfl Jan 28 at 1:49
show 2 more comments

A blink of an eye and a split second come to mind.

Edit: If you insist on a single word, you'll have to go with an instant, or get creative and change the sentence structure to accommodate a different part of speech, like momentar(il)y.

share|improve this answer
Rigth, but do you have it in one word? –  Samoth Jan 27 at 14:56
Why does it have to be one word? –  RegDwigнt Jan 27 at 14:57
@Samoth: And I think you should add that pouième is a colloquial term and not a scientific term. –  Laure Jan 27 at 15:07
@dotsamuelswan Yes, just like aeon means a billion years, epoch means 1 million years, and jiffy means one unit of Planck time. Except when they don't.. –  choster Jan 27 at 16:55
@dotsamuelswan Says who? Nobody has used that definition of "moment" for centuries. Most dictionaries list it as a "historical" or "medieval" usage, not current. By current usage, it just means a very short period of time, possibly synonymous with "instant". –  Darrel Hoffman Jan 27 at 19:10
show 8 more comments

I would say they are colloquial, but I have always like tad or mite

share|improve this answer
+1 Both seem to be good equivalents for the French pouième. Colloquial, one word, undefined can be used for time, but not exclusively. –  Laure Jan 27 at 19:30
Maybe I think of nit for similar reasons ... –  hunter2 Jan 28 at 9:52
I've never heard those words used to represent a small amount of time ("I'll be with you in a mite/tad"?). To me they're equivalent to 'a little bit', i.e. "That wallpaper's a tad ugly, don't you think?" –  Chris McKeown Jan 28 at 12:36
add comment

The nuclear weapons people and electronic engineers use shake for a period of ten nanoseconds; this is from the expression two shakes of a lamb's tail, meaning a short period of time. Ten nanoseconds is a convenient measure of time for these applications.

share|improve this answer
I'm an electronic engineer, and frequently speak of nanoseconds with a somewhat intelligent look on my face, but have never heard of a "shake" in that context. Is it perhaps a right-Pondian usage? –  Spehro Pefhany Jan 27 at 23:44
@SpehroPefhany, beats me. I am not in either of those trades; this is just a piece of useless data cluttering up my head. –  Brian Hooper Jan 28 at 3:43
@SpehroPefhany Are you susceptible to EMI? Or you probably mean you are an electronics engineer? –  Kris Jan 28 at 5:44
add comment

The Oxford English Dictionary defines nanosecond is one thousand-millionth of a second, but its second definition is ‘an extremely short period of time’.

share|improve this answer
You're right but I forgot to mention that a pouième is undefined (ie you can't say a pouième is 5 ns) so I'm looking for a non-scientific term –  Samoth Jan 27 at 14:55
"This'll be over in a nanosecond!" ~Zero, Marvel vs Capcom 3 –  Southpaw Hare Jan 27 at 15:56
Well, what you forgot to mention is that pouième is a funny slang word, not that this is 'undefined'. Nanosecond isn't funny at all. –  Léon Pelletier Jan 27 at 18:13
Q: What is a nanosecond? A: It's the time it takes the driver in back of you at a traffic light to blow his horn when the light turns from red to green! Now THAT'S funny (IMO). –  rhetorician Jan 27 at 18:35
And an onosecond is the time it takes to realise you’ve mistakenly pressed the delete key. –  Barrie England Jan 27 at 18:40
show 1 more comment

Jiffy, to me, seems to be the most appropriate word.

It means:

a very short time

share|improve this answer
Did that ... Pop into your mind? :-) –  Carl Witthoft Jan 27 at 18:13
@CarlWitthoft Honestly? Yes. The moment I read the question I knew I had a word for it. Didn't look at any of the answer. And yes jiffy did pop. But if I had completely read choster's answer I wouldn't have posted this answer. Thinking of deleting. –  Bleeding Fingers Jan 27 at 19:43
[ruining the joke] -- perhaps yr not a US citizen over 40 years old: Jiffy Pop was a staple snack of many households once upon a time. –  Carl Witthoft Jan 27 at 19:58
My sincere apologies for that. Killjoy. And yes, you guessed it right. –  Bleeding Fingers Jan 27 at 20:07
Cautionary note: Technically, I think Jiffy is the perfect word, except for the fact that the word has been somewhat polluted since it was, for a while, a brand name of Condoms in the UK. Like saying "Rubber" in the USA when you mean "Eraser", if you say "Jiffy" in the UK you will get strange looks. –  rolfl Jan 28 at 1:53
show 1 more comment

The smallest possible unit of time known in physics is planck time. Or, you can simply say planck. It's about 5.4 x 10^-44 seconds.

share|improve this answer
The O.P. asked for something that was not a fixed amount of time, but I suppose this suggestion could be adapted: I'll be there in a few plancks! Of course, there's a good chance no one will know what you're talking about,but I suppose that just gives you something else to talk about. –  J.R. Jan 27 at 20:32
add comment

If you mean conversationally, I would go with "a bit", "a moment" or even "a second" or "a minute" (no one will time you). Say your friend wanted to show you something online, or you're telling your mum you'll be at dinner in a small amount of time, you could use any of those words and tell them you'll "be there in a second." If you were calling your friend as you were driving to apologize for being late to a dinner engagement, you'd tell them you'll "be there in a bit" or "just a bit". These sound the most casual and conversational to me and most like something that a twenty-something would say.

If you mean in a technical written document, something to mean mere fractions of a second, I would use "a split second" even though it is multiple words.

In response to some of the other answers, a "jiffy" sounds dated to me, as "iota", a "plank" sounds too nerdy, and a "shake" is something my grandfather's generation would say.

share|improve this answer
Agree. No one would care if you make them wait longer or shorter than you intended to, since, there's no big difference. Also, if you tell someone to wait for "the word", or I will be done in "the word", you are probably lying. Because, you can't probably do anything meaningful in less than 5 seconds. I like "jiffy" though, but it means very fast. –  Kumar Bibek Jan 28 at 5:12
add comment

A word faster and shorter than a second?

"I'll be with you in a sec."
"Hang on, I'll only be a sec!"
"OK, I'm on my way." "Great, see you in a sec!"
"Aren't you ready?" "Just a sec!"

TFD defines sec as being the abbreviation of second, and meaning a brief interval of time; a moment.

share|improve this answer
add comment

You might try "momentary" or "fleeting"?

share|improve this answer
add comment

It really depends on the context. Pouième conveys the idea of a negligible quantity in comparison to a whole — and not just of time, at that.

The two examples from wiktionary:

A un pouième près, ils sont tous d’accord sur ces vingt minutes.

Un pouième de seconde.

Might translate to:

Give or take minute details, they all agree on those twenty minutes.

A fraction of a second.

The current top voted answer is not perfect imho… You could understand instant as a small moment, of course. But in the context where you'd actually mention a pouième in French, an instant would more typically refer to an infinitesimal point in time.

Methinks "a fraction [of]" conveys the idea better if you want to keep the humorous spirit of "pouième", else go with "instant" if time is the context you have in mind.

share|improve this answer
I like "a fraction of second". I'm not so sure about your translation of the first sentence; "Give or take a nitpick" doesn't seem right to my ears, nor does "agree over". –  aetheria Jan 27 at 18:29
@aetheria: ya, true. Fixed, but I'll probably end up deleting the answer anyway. –  Denis Jan 27 at 18:44
add comment

I would think that "iota" would be good here, as in "Don't waste one iota thinking about it."

share|improve this answer
iota typically refers to content rather than time. –  Jason Thompson Jan 27 at 19:34
I don't think so. An iota is an extremely small amount. In principle, an amount of anything, but I've never heard it used of time. –  FumbleFingers Jan 27 at 19:34
Hmm...I've heard it before, but perhaps it's colloquial. –  user63590 Jan 27 at 19:36
It is a quantity, so it fits. thefreedictionary.com/iota –  Sean B Jan 28 at 0:36
in the software context provided, iota was my first thought, because tick has a precise technical meaning –  Kate Gregory Jan 28 at 12:17
add comment

There are some words that can easily be used to refer to a very small amount of time. The firsts to come to mind are: trice, jiffy, flash, blink. All those has been mentioned before...

So, I want to focus on another one: heartbeat.

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language includes the definition:

An instant: The police arrived at the scene in a heartbeat.

The Random House Kernerman Webster's College Dictionary says:

Idioms: in a heartbeat, Informal. enthusiastically and without hesitation; in an instant.

And the Oxford English Dictionary includes the following examples:

laughter was only a heartbeat (very close to; on the verge of) from tears

I’d do it again in a heartbeat (instantly; immediately)

When it about small quantities in general - aside from heartbeat and the words mentioned above - there are a few others to consider:

  • jot: a very small amount.
  • soupçon [Taken from french souspeçon]: a very small quantity of something.
  • whit: a very small part or amount.
  • sprinkle: a small quantity or amount of something scattered over an object or surface.
  • trace: a very small quantity, especially one too small to be accurately measured.
  • trifle: a small amount / (can be used as) a little; somewhat.
  • modicum: a small quantity of a particular thing, especially something considered desirable or valuable.
  • pennyworth: an amount of something that may be bought for a penny.

The use of some of these words may be a stretch, for example pennyworth specifically means what a penny can buy (even if it is not used like that), and both trace and sprinkle has other meaning that can be confusing. If you allow that you may consider:

  • dash [as a noun]: a small quantity thrown in or mingled with a larger mass or amount.
  • shred: a strip of material, such as paper, cloth, or food, that has been torn, cut, or scraped from something larger.
  • vestige: a trace of something that is disappearing or no longer exists.
  • scrap: a small piece or amount of something, especially one that is left over after the greater part has been used.

Of the mentioned words soupçon is dated to the point that my spell checker doesn't get it, the use whit, trifle and pennyworth is fading, jot use is steady, and modicum surprisingly common according to some sources.

Note: the above definitions are from the Oxford English Dictionary - except for dash that comes from the Dictionary of Collective Nouns and Group Terms, and also trifle and modicum that come from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language.

share|improve this answer
add comment

How about "Stat"? Nobody says "Get him to to the E.R., in a jiffy".

share|improve this answer
"Stat" typically acts as an adverb. –  Michael Owen Sartin Jan 28 at 3:35
Good point.I also like "Now". It can describe anything from a fraction of a second to a much broader period of time such as the current century. –  user63628 Jan 28 at 15:55
add comment

There is actually a medieval notation where an 'atomus' (or atom, literally 'not smaller than') was defined as the blink of an eye. It was thought that it was the smallest unit of time measurement.

The term was redefined rigorously as 1/376 of a temporal minute in the modern era as more robust measurement equipment became available.

share|improve this answer
add comment

As we strive for smaller and smaller intervals of time we progress from

nanosecond: one thousand millionth of a second


picosecond: one million millionth of a second (American trillionth of a second)


femtosecond: one thousand million millionth of a second (American quadrillionth of a second)

and finally

attosecond: one million million millionth of a second (American pentrillionth of a second).

Technically zeptoseconds and yoctosoeconds exist as defined units of time smaller by further factors of 1,000 and 1,000,000 but those terms are too geeky even for me.

share|improve this answer
For more completeness, the list deserves millisecond: one thousandth of a second. –  martin f Jan 28 at 4:40
@martinf: Millisecond is too large and pedestrian to count as a small unit of time to a physicist. ;-) –  Pieter Geerkens Jan 28 at 4:41
Maybe, but the specs were 5 ms to 0.1 ms –  martin f Jan 28 at 4:43
@martinf: Any lack of imagination by OP is not my responsibility. –  Pieter Geerkens Jan 28 at 4:45
All these are too specific OP since says he wants to qualify an undefined and non-scientific term. –  Laure Jan 28 at 6:35
add comment

In your case it is a small amount of time but it isn't indeterminate, it is a regular and fixed interval. "Tick" is the correct term to use in computing to mean "the resolution of the clock" or "the frequency of a timer/timed event".

It is not just used as milliseconds as in the GetTickCount function, it is used everywhere, for various amounts of time.

It is called a Tick in .Net datetime library. Here each one is 100 nanoseconds: http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/system.datetime.ticks(v=vs.110).aspx

In Posix it is called a tick. Here the time depends on the system "The number of clock ticks per second can be obtained using sysconf(_SC_CLK_TCK); ": http://linux.die.net/man/2/times

Boost uses the term tick in the same sense as Posix: http://www.boost.org/doc/libs/1_55_0/doc/html/date_time/posix_time.html#date_time.posix_time.time_period

MIDI uses the term Tick: http://cnx.org/content/m15051/latest/

Tick is also used to mean timer resolution in .Net's System.Diagnostics.Stopwatch, in the Timer class, and the DispatcherTimer class.

The only exception seems to be the FILETIME documentation which refers to 100-nanosecond Intervals.

share|improve this answer
add comment

What about "snath" or a "tick"?

share|improve this answer
'snath'? I've never heard of that. Is there a specific meaning? Can you give a reference? –  Mitch Jan 27 at 16:47
add comment

A 90's slang pop-culture reference would be 'mmmbop' from 1997's one hit wonder band 'Hanson' from the song with the same title.

see http://onlineslangdictionary.com/meaning-definition-of/mmmbop

Just throwing it out there.

share|improve this answer
add comment

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.