Does anyone know the etymology of this expression?

"He ran down the street in five seconds flat"

I found this explanation of meaning at Wordreference but would like to know where the expression comes from:

"In seconds flat" is an uncommon way of saying in no more than a few seconds.

What kind of word is flat in this instance? Is this a UK expression or used worldwide?

Sorry, I know that's 3 questions, but they're all connected.

  • 2
    This might be racing terminology perhaps related to the stop-watch. Jan 31, 2013 at 6:50
  • 1
    @coleopterist flat for exactly predates clocks with second hands, quite a bit.
    – Jon Hanna
    Jan 31, 2013 at 11:04
  • Flat for exactly may predate clocks with second hands, but seconds flat doesn't.
    – Hugo
    Jan 31, 2013 at 16:44

2 Answers 2


Flat has been used as an adverb to mean ‘exactly’ since the sixteenth century. The OED records its use in the context of various kinds of measurement as being of US origin. The earliest citation in this sense is from ‘Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language’ in 1909.

  • Anything for the contraction to "in seconds flat". It's immediately understandable (as long as you know the first expression), but it has always struck me as strange in The Beatles' "A Day In The Life". I'd wondered before if it was a pre-existent idiom, or coined by Lennon & McCartney to suit their meter.
    – Jon Hanna
    Jan 31, 2013 at 11:06
  • 1
    @Jon Hanna. 7 returns for in seconds flat from the COCA, and 1 from the BNC. All probably postdate The Beatles, but that in itself isn’t conclusive. No citations for it in the OED. Jan 31, 2013 at 11:15
  • 1
    So, not conclusive, but still possibly a Lennon & McCartney coinage. Interesting, thanks.
    – Jon Hanna
    Jan 31, 2013 at 11:25
  • 1
    @Nick wrote that he "remember[s] that phraseology being used growing up in England before the Beatles came into existence," so it is quite unlikely that it was a Lennon & McCartney coinage.
    – herisson
    Jun 29, 2015 at 20:29
  • For the record, "A Day in the Life" (which contains the phrase "Made the bus in seconds flat") was written in 1967 and appeared on Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967). "Motorpsycho Nightmare," which appeared on Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964), contains this lyric: "Rita mumbled something/’Bout her mother on the hill/As his fist hit the icebox/He said he’s going to kill/Me If I don’t get out the door/ In two seconds flat /“You unpatriotic/Rotten doctor Commie rat.”
    – Sven Yargs
    Jun 30, 2015 at 5:18

It's originally from the US but is now used worldwide, and the earliest examples describe times in running, bicycle and horse races that are dead on to the whole second, rather than a number of seconds and fractions (typically fifths) of seconds.

This may because the second hand was exactly flat against the second mark on the watch dial, and not in between. For a modern analogy, you can compare it to an exact measure of, say, a litre of flour where the top is levelled off and there's no discrepancy.

The OED's first citation is a 1909 dictionary, but I found a 26-year antedating.

The National Republican (Washington City (D.C.), May 15, 1883) gives horse racing results:

Joe Murray, who is looked upon as a very possible winner of the handicap, went a half mile in fifty seconds flat by three watches, but pulled up seemingly tired.

The San Francisco Call (May 01, 1898) gives some times with fractions of seconds, and one in seconds flat:

He took the sticks beautifully and in the fast time of 15 4-5 seconds. ... Morgan ran the 220 hurdles in 26 seconds flat, equaling Torrey's record made on an Eastern track.

  • I don't believe measuring cups were used in cooking until after 1883. Jan 31, 2013 at 14:48
  • Yes ... the web says Fannie Farmer in her 1896 cookbook switched from using weight measurements to volume measurements. On the other hand, teaspoons and tablespoons were used for measuring small quantities of stuff back in the 18th century (presumably because the scales people had didn't work well for stuff that light), so your derivation could still be correct. Jan 31, 2013 at 14:57
  • @PeterShor: Interesting, but that was a modern analogy rather than an etymological claim :) I've clarified the text. Thanks!
    – Hugo
    Jan 31, 2013 at 16:19

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