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I am referring to the context where you miss or don't miss something by a very short time, like when you miss or succeed in taking a train or a flight by just a few minutes or even a few seconds. What are the common expressions or sayings that can be used in such cases?

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marked as duplicate by choster, Ronan, RyeɃreḁd, ermanen, medica May 28 at 3:36

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"... by a hair", "by the skin of your teeth", "[just] in the nick of time" –  Doc May 27 at 16:06
    
Planck's time: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planck_time –  Blessed Geek May 28 at 2:06

7 Answers 7

"Missed the plane by a whisker" would be one common such expression.

It is also used (and makes more intuitive sense) in non time related contexts such as a footballer missing the goal by a whisker.

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Missed by a hair is a distance, like by a nose. It is short for a hair's breadth. –  medica May 27 at 12:45
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@medica it is used in practice for both temporal and spatial near misses. –  Martin Smith May 27 at 12:46
    
A source would be nice? –  medica May 27 at 12:47
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@medica First example here idioms.thefreedictionary.com/whisker. And of course generally if you miss something by a very short time you are going to also be a very short distance away but also to say "caught the train by a whisker" would be fine and googling that phrase in quotes brings back plenty of results –  Martin Smith May 27 at 12:56
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I suppose the breadth of a hair would literally refer to space, but my experience of this phrase is the same as that of @MartinSmith in that it can just as easily refer to time. –  568ml May 27 at 13:39

by the skin of one's teeth is a common expression:

Fig. just barely. (By an amount equal to the thickness of the (imaginary) skin on one's teeth.

  • I got through calculus class by the skin of my teeth.
  • I got to the airport a few minutes late and missed the plane by the skin of my teeth.
  • Lloyd escaped from the burning building by the skin of his teeth.
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In practice I only hear this used to indicate something positive was achieved rather than negative. I might say I caught the train by the skin of my teeth but probably not that I missed it in that manner. The second definition on your page also indicates success rather than failure. –  Martin Smith May 27 at 13:04
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@MartinSmith isn't the second example "I got to the airport a few minutes late and missed the plane by the skin of my teeth", or am I missing something? –  568ml May 27 at 13:27
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For what it's worth, as a native speaker of British English, 'by the skin of one's teeth' can and very often is used to refer a negative outcome. –  568ml May 27 at 13:28
    
@568ml Yes the second example is a negative one. I'm a native British speaker too and just saying that In my experience the Cambridge definition is more accurate than the McGraw Hill one. I always associated it with just scraping through. But if you say you often see it in a negative context then maybe not then! –  Martin Smith May 27 at 13:33
  • Moment
    A brief, indefinite interval of time

  • Instant
    An almost imperceptible space of time

  • Twinkling of an eye

  • In a flash
  • Blink of an eye
  • Split second

Examples,

  • I was outbid of the ebay item within last moments of the auction.
  • Cinderella transformed into a beautiful princess in the twinkling of an eye.
  • 1 Corinthians 15:52 (various versions)
    in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.

    It will happen in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown. For when the trumpet sounds, those who have died will be raised to live forever. And we who are living will also be transformed.

    It will happen in an instant, in a split second at the sound of the last trumpet. Indeed, that trumpet will sound, and then the dead will come back to life. They will be changed so that they can live forever.

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just missed is the most common expression I can think of. It's not elegant, but it conveys the meaning you're looking for.

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If your context allows for some expressive vulgarity, then you could consider by a gnat's dick. E.g.:

We missed that train by a gnat's dick!

This phrase is not one which is completely fixed, and as such one may encounter varying permutations, including by a gnat's bollock and by a gnat's cock.

Should they even have sex organs (a matter better resolved on another Stack Exchange website), the expression holds that a gnat's penis would be very small indeed, thereby providing a vivid analogue for a minute quantity of space or time.

The phrase is therefore best reserved for situations that a) pertain to very narrow margin of success or failure and b) are informal.

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Or a less vulgar alternative (courtesy of Google auto complete) would be "by a gnat's eyelash" –  Martin Smith May 27 at 14:28

You got to your plane in the nick of time.

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And if they just missed it? –  Martin Smith May 27 at 14:57

Consider:

I missed the train by a hair.

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What is the meaning of jerk in "split second jerk" there? Missed the train by a split second is fine on its own. –  Martin Smith May 27 at 14:52

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