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I saw the phrase, ‘before you can say Dow-Jones Index’ in the following sentence of JefferyArcher’s novel, “Not a penny more, Not a penny less.”

Scotland Yard’s Fraud Squad Detective Inspector, Clifford Smith tells young Oxford's visiting Mathematics professor, Stephen Bradley who fell a victim to a large scale investment fraud, being coaxed by his Harvard school mate:

“I’m sorry to say that we can hardly ever recover the money, even if we produce enough evidence to nail the villains. They have it all stashed away all over the world before you can say Dow-Jones Index.

I guess “Dow-Jones Index” here is Archer’s version of “before you can say knife (or Jack Robinson),” but I’m curious to know;

1) Can we coin and use as many variation of “before you can say X” in our conversation as Archer did?

2) Is there a standard or best received pattern of “before you can say X”? Is it “before you can say knife”?

3) What is the origin of “before you can say knife”? Why it should be the “knife,” not gun, sword, Tom, Jon, any other words that represent for brevity?

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The Dow-Jones version hints at the commonly-seen ironic variation, where X is a deliberately long phrase, e.g.: "He headed for the airport faster than you can say Wanted in Thirteen Countries By Interpol, CIA and Scotland Yard". –  Paul Richter Jan 26 '12 at 10:04
I've never heard it with "knife"... –  Karl Knechtel Jan 26 '12 at 10:55
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2 Answers

up vote 7 down vote accepted

1) Theoretical answer is yes. You can coin as many words as you want to create your own version of "Before you can say Jack Robinson" You might use that to talk about a character or object that appears in the book to give it a personal touch. Though if you use an other words than "knife" or "Jack Robinson" the meaning of the original Idiom may be misunderstood.

Usage notes: Often the word or phrase that follows before you can say is related to the situation you are talking about: In summer, food goes bad before you can say heat wave

2) The standard idioms are:

before you can say knife
before you can say Jack Robinson
before you know it

3) Where the Idiom with "Jack Robinson" came from:

This expression originated in the 1700s, but the identity of Jack Robinson has been lost. Grose's Classical Dictionary (1785) said he was a man who paid such brief visits to acquaintances that there was scarcely time to announce his arrival before he had departed, but it gives no further documentation. A newer version is before you know it, meaning so soon that you don't have time to become aware of it (as in He'll be gone before you know it). source: wiki

before you can say “knife” This colloquial British expression is equivalent to before you can say “Jack Robinson.” Mrs. Louisa Parr used it in Adam and Eve (1880). source

::Edit big thanks to abhinav for the origins of before you can say knife

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I have heard "faster than you can say..." many times but was not even aware that there was an archetype ("knife" / "Jack Robinson") and have only heard context-specific variations of it. (So my answer to Q1 would be "Most definitely, in fact all the time.") Until now, if someone had said to me "Faster than you can say Jack Robinson" I would have confusedly responded "Who's Jack Robinson?" while fully understanding what the expression meant. –  Paul Richter Jan 26 '12 at 9:45
+1 for usage notes. This says, that "before you can say knife" was used in Adam and Eve (1880). –  abhinav Jan 26 '12 at 9:45
P.S. The "british-english" tag explains why I (American) have heard only variants but never the original. Though if a British person said "faster...Jack Robinson" I would probably figure out that it was a British variation :), as Jack Robinson sounds like a very British name. –  Paul Richter Jan 26 '12 at 9:56
I've heard it with Jack Robinson a couple of times and with a million other things that were chosen to be appropriate to the situation, but never ever "knife". –  Karl Knechtel Jan 26 '12 at 10:56
“Before you can say ———” is the idiom. “Knife” and “Jack Robinson” are very common endings. One of the earliest published uses of the idiom ended with “custard”: St. Ronan’s Well by Sir Walter Scott, published at the end of 1823. Playwright George Colman used “parsnip” in John Bull, published in Ireland in 1803. –  MετάEd Jan 26 '12 at 16:23
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To elaborate on question 1), it's reasonably common to replace Jack Robinson with a "humorously appropriate" phrase for the situation at hand, such as your author did when talking about money from investment fraud being stashed.
Some other completely made-up examples:

When she found out her new boyfriend had a criminal record, she dumped him faster than you can say habeas corpus.

The 5-year-old grabbed the stray lollipop and bolted off to his room faster than you can say 'Willy Wonka'.

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From your examples, here’s my version. - Japan’s Prime ministers change over faster than you can say “Change!” –  Yoichi Oishi Jan 27 '12 at 0:56
@Yoichi: I must tell you that your example misses the mark, in that your X (change) is the very verb that describes the quick action. X should be related to the situation, but in an incidental way. In Hellion's examples, habeas corpus is a term related to crime, and Willy Wonka is a term related to candy. In your example, there is really one and only one perfect X: "Japan's Prime ministers change over faster than you can say Tsutomu Hata." –  Paul Richter Jan 27 '12 at 2:28
P.S.: Even if the reader has never heard of Tsutomu Hata, he will understand from the expression that Hata is the shortest-serving PM. –  Paul Richter Jan 27 '12 at 2:33
@Paul Richter. I tried to pun on change of “quick replacement“and “Change for reform” as every political leader’s slogan, meaning every prime minister is replaced in so short time as he (or you) can’t finish to say so short word, “Change.” Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to work. –  Yoichi Oishi Jan 27 '12 at 3:21
@Yoichi Oishi: Is "Change!" in the Japanese context recognizeable by itself as a slogan? (I myself live in Japan and did not it recognize it as such, but I don't pay much attention to politics. :) If you are writing for an English-speaking readership that is familiar with the Japanese language in the context of politics, perhaps you could even go for a romanized "Kaikaku!" as your keyword, as that would narrow the context to politics. But even then, the link between kaikaku (reforming policies) and replacing prime ministers is weak. –  Paul Richter Jan 30 '12 at 6:17
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