28

What is the origin of "in a jiffy"?

Etymology online Dictionary says origin unknown but speculates that it was slang (cant) for lightning and dates it as 1785.

Wikipedia agrees but adds that the American physical chemist, Gilbert Newton Lewis (1875–1946) was the first to actually specify how long a jiffy was, a mere 33.3564 picoseconds. Nowadays a jiffy is the delay interval between one computer animation frame and another, particularly in Autodesk Animator, it being defined as 1/100th-of-a-second (10 ms) jiffies (if I've understood that part correctly).

Grammarphobia mentions the OED entry and goes on to say

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology speculates that the word might have been “spontaneously coined” by Raspe, a German librarian, writer, and scientist.

The earliest recorded use of "in a jiffy" I found is dated 1780 from The Town and Country Magazine, Or Universal Repository of Knowledge, Instruction and Entertainment.

"in a jiffy" snippet

This was pure luck, a serendipitous moment, I had been looking for variations of the idiom twist someone around one's finger when I saw "in a jiffy" being used in conjunction with the metaphor. In fact, if one types "jiffy" in the search box, Google informs "there are no results for jiffy in this book" but I found two instances!

Most of the limbs of law do everything in a jiffy; but ask what they mean, and they would be as much puzzled, as if you required of them the explanation of a common act of parliament. If such gibberish were confined to hackney clerks of twelve shillings a week, we should not notice it, as we should scarce ever have our ears grated with it; but the misfortune is, by degrees it has found its way into more polite assemblies, and a lady of taste was heard to say the other evening at the Pantheon, that she could turn Sir William B_____ round her finger in a jiffy. If people of sense or common understanding, would reflect one moment on the folly of using words and phrases they could not explain, they would certainly explode them, and shun those who used them, as being afflicted with a verbal contagion, ...

As fascinating this felicitous episode may be, it didn't explain the origins of this expression.


jeffy

A spelling variation in Francis Grose's book, Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1796)

It will be done in a jeffy: it will be done in a short space of time, in an instant.


updated: 17 December 2017

in a jiffey

In The Newcastle Jester; being a choice collection of Entertaining Jests, Humourous Tales, Droll Stories, Lively Puns, &c (1804) We have:

Two Irishmen fishing one day in the Liffey,
Which runs close by Dublin's great city so fine,
A smart show'r of rain falling, Pat, in a jiffey,
Crept under the arch of Queen's-bridge with his line.
"Arrah, that's not the way to accomplish your wishes,"
Cries Dermot,—" there devil a bite will you get."
"Ogh! bother," says Pat, "don't you know that the fishes
Will creep under here, to keep out of the wet!"

There are other instances where the alliteration Liffey (the river that flows across Dublin; Ireland) and jiffey are repeated. In a song entitled, Master Rooney of Ballinafad's Travels and Voyage, dated 1807, we have the following example:

song snippet


giffy

Another spelling variant was giffy I found several instances of this word in Google books but none told me their origins.

  • 1822 (London); "he saw Mary walking along the road we a strange man, [...] that Mary fell in a fit and the man attempted first to help her, but that William sent him flying over the hedge in a giffy, and threatened Mary,..."
  • 1833 (Middlebury College, Vermont); "Done, and O the philosophers scales effected nothing half so wonderful! The seven were raised in a giffy, and we verily concluded it would take five more to restore the equilibrium."
  • 1833 (New York); Giffy, a rapid and brief space of time.
  • 1866 (Lincolnshire); Giffy.—Immediately. Ex. I'll be with you in a giffy. Giffling.—Moving about impatiently

in a jiffing

The expression, in a jiffing was apparently well-known in the USA. In Dictionary of Americanisms By John Russell Bartlett (1859). The term To rights is defined as Directly; soon and by the expression in a jiffing.

In a jiffing was also used by Dickens in his All the Year Round, Volumes 15-16 dated 1866.


jiffle

I found the following excerpt in The Dictionary of English Etymology E - P, Volume 2 By Hensleigh Wedgwood (1862)

It appears that a jif and jiffy is a shortening of jiffle or is it the other way round? Is jiffle a diminutive of jiff? Which is older?

Hal.— stands for Halliwell's Dict. of Archaic and Provincial Words


jeffey

Lastly, I found yet another spelling variant in A Dictionary of Slang and Colloquial English (...) Slang and its Analogues By John S. Farmer and W.E. Henley, printed in London 1905

enter image description here

Curiously, the authors establish its date three years before Francis Grose's dictionary was published but, yet again, fail to explain its origins.

Which language or dialect does jiffy derive from? Was it originally a nickname? Was it really Cant for lightning? Will we ever know the truth?

  • 5
    Your 1780 find pre-dates OED's earliest citation [1785, "in six jiffies"] and you should forward it to them. – Andrew Leach Sep 11 '14 at 12:24
  • 4
  • 1
    Before I clicked on this question, I pre-emptively opened etymonline... Only to find a question that seems to contain its own answer! This “question” would serve as a great answer to the bare title. I wish I could add anything useful as an answer but I can only offer compliments in a comment. – oerkelens Sep 11 '14 at 12:36
  • 3
    @Robusto I would need to take time off work to read tchrist's answer to this question if he would respect his usual ratio of question/answer-length! – oerkelens Sep 11 '14 at 13:49
  • 2
    @Mari-LouA - We are in the 18th century...no cars, o trains and no planes..what's a common thing you can see and is extremely quick? A lightning may fit and be used as a common example...I found that 'jiffy' was a term in the Thives'cant vocabulary..but no evidence yet it meant lighting.... – user66974 Sep 11 '14 at 15:08
8

Chiffy

"Etymologicon Magnum, or Universal Etymological Dictionary" by Walter Whiter (1800) makes the claim that "chiffy", as used in the term "in a chiffy" derives from the Anglo-Saxon word "Caf".

"A Dictionary of the Anglo-Saxon Language" by Joseph Bosworth (1832) confirms the meaning of "Caf" as "quick, sharp, nimble, swift".

Jiffin

This is my oldest source yet, this time for "jiffin".

"The Fall of British Tyranny: or American Liberty Triumphant" by John Leacock

This was published in MDCCLXXVI, which by my reckoning is 1776.

Please to walk aft, brother soldiers, that's the fittest berth for you, the Kidnapper's in the state room, he'll hoist his sheet-anchor presently, he'll be up in a jiffin --- as soon as he has made fast his end of his small rope athwart Jenny Bluegarter and Kate Common's stern ports."

Jiff/Jiffy

In 1791, Edward Nairne of Sandwich, Kent published "Poems, Miscellaneous and Humorous, with Explanatory Notes and Observations" in which the following lines appear:

At dinner-time, and bus'ness slack,

I stept to Joe's, and got a snack

A pot of mildchee, and a whiff,

And off again in half a jiff !§

The author's explanatory notes, below, are expansive and delightful:

§ Jiff or jiffy, a jocular expression, and means a short space of time. Innumerable are the expressions (particularly amongst sailors) to shew what expedition may be, or is intended to be made, in the doing of any act ; the progress of these is curious. I perfectly recol- lect, when a school-boy, an expression of this kind — ' Before you can say Jack Robinson' — was very common. After the intervention of various others, that of — ' As soon as you can say peas' — came into vogue ; but some persons, who were not over precipitate, very properly qualified it by adding — ' and boil them.' Next, the ele- gant expression of doing any thing ' In a pig's whisper' came into fashion! (What particular period of time this contains, I am at a loss to determine, having never yet had the pleasure of hearing these melodious animals exhibit in this way ! — I have frequently, and with admiration, observed them make transitions from one note to another, and which usually has a most charming effect.) — The ingenuity of modern times has, I believe, brought this business to its ne plus ultra, its greatest perfection ! and people can now, according to their own declarations, do things ' In less than no time ' This beats Joshua's making the sun stand still -, for that only protracted daylight, and puzzled the clocksmiths ! but this has all the advantages of time, without the inconvenience of waiting for it.

  • @Hugo Aren't you going to take a stab at this? It's right up your street. Wotcha say? – Mari-Lou A Sep 12 '14 at 15:25
  • @Mari-LouA: I took a quick stab and found nothing earlier! – Hugo Sep 12 '14 at 15:42
  • Wow - how wrong can I get a date?! 100 years apparently! Quel numpty, as they don't say in French. – Phil M Jones Sep 25 '14 at 9:45
  • Rather unimpressive 1867 reference now removed to spare my blushes! – Phil M Jones Sep 25 '14 at 9:47
  • Your answer inspired me the most to continue, and you were the one who found the 1776 "jiffin". Thank you, I thoroughly enjoyed myself with this question. – Mari-Lou A Sep 25 '14 at 16:58
7

My answer focuses on the lineage of the form giffy, which is reported in a couple of reference works from the 1830s. William Holloway, A General Dictionary of Provincialisms (1839) has this entry for giffy:

GIFFY, n. The shortest possible portion of time ; the winking of an eye. Norf. Sussex. Hants.

The county citations indicate that Holloway found evidence that the term was in use in Norfolk, Sussex, and Hampshire.

Robert Forby, The Vocabulary of East Anglia (1830) contains this entry, which begins strikingly similarly to Holloway’s entry:

GIFFY, s. the shortest possible portion of time; the winking of an eye. Ex. “I will do it in a giffy ; or a couple of giffies.” Certainly it belongs to giffle, and so to gliff. L. SC. [that is, “Lowland Scotch”] BR [“Brockett’s Glossary”].

The same book explains those related terms as follows:

GIFFLE, v. to be restless ; unquiet ; fidgety. It ought to be spelled with g, not j, as the DICTT. [that is, "Dictionaries in general"] have it. There can be no doubt of its formation from the old word gliff (the twinkling of an eye), by a very easy metathesis.

Following the reference in Forby to John Brockett, A Glossary of North Country Words, in Use: With Their Etymology, and Affinity to Other Languages (1825) yields this entry for gliff:

GLIFF, a slight or transient view, a glimpse, a fright. " Eh! what a gliff I'd getten in the kirk garth, the neet now! He was seet a lenth in the cleevers that gard him rin se fast.”

So this line of etymological thinking traces giffy back to gliff, and does so from a first instance of giffy in 1830 and a definition of gliff in 1825. I’m especially intrigued by the fact (reported in Forby) that a plural form of giffy was in contemporaneous use in 1830.


UPDATE (9/24/14): As Phil M. Jones points out in a comment below, gliff appears in Francis Grose, A Provincial Glossary (1787):

GLIFF. A fright. N. In Cheshire it is used to signify a glympse, or transient view ; as I got a gliff of him.

"Glimpse" appears to be the sense of gliffe in George Meriton, "A York-shire Dialogue in Its Pure Natural Dialect: as it is now commonly spoken in the North Parts of Yorkeshire" (1684), reprinted in Nine Specimens of English Dialects (1896):

Mother [to Father]. You've setten'th Hen a Flowter, & she did settle,

To git her Birds all under the Lang-Settle.

She gat a Gliffe o'th Dog ; hit him a Nawpe,

Or else Ise tack up'th Tengs and break his Scaup.

A later author distinguishes between gliff (for fright) and glift (for glance). From Francis Robinson, A Glossary of Yorkshire Words and Phrases: Collected in Whitby and the Neighbourhood (1855):

A GLIFF, a fright. "I gat a sare gliff," I got a sore scaring, or "saw something" as the phrase goes, which the reader's ghostly imagination is at liberty to picture.

A GLIFT, a slight look. "I nobbut gat a glift on't," a mere passing glance.

John Jamieson, An Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language (1818) assigns two meanings to gliff:

GLIFF, s. 1. A transient view, S. 2. A moment, S. Mannering.

The capital S after each definition, Jamieson says, "Denotes that a word is still used in Scotland." Mannering presumably refers to the novel Guy Mannering by Walter Scott, published in 1815.

The upshot of all this is that gliff, an arguable source of giffy, has a trail of use in Northern England and Scotland going at least as far back as 1684.

  • 1
    "A provincial glossary" (1787) by Francis Glose has "Gliff" as signifying a glipmse, etc being of Cheshire origin. – Phil M Jones Sep 24 '14 at 11:31
  • I think between the three of use we could write a book about the origins of "in a jiffy"! – Mari-Lou A Sep 25 '14 at 4:35
  • 1
    And yet I have no idea where jiffy originated... Really, the most gratifying moment in my research occurred when I came across what may be the best title I've ever seen for an academic work in English: An Attempt at a Glossary of Some Words Used in Cheshire (1826) by Roger Wilbraham. I would love to have seen Mr. Wilbraham on a book tour, just for the Schadenfreude of his intense unease. – Sven Yargs Sep 25 '14 at 4:54
6

Jiffy in Great Britain

We have in 1796 the following entry in Francis Grose's Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. Note how he spelt the word with an -e.

That spelling variant has haunted me ever since I saw it. The letter -e substituting -i leads me to pronounce jeffy as | ˈdʒefi | whilst jiffy is pronounced as | ˈdʒɪfi | Until I stumbled upon jeffey (p244) that anomalous -e was always at the back of my mind. So my next quandary was finding which spelling variant came first.

It appears jiffy is the older spelling judging from its earliest mention in 1780. The excerpt suggests that it was an expression typically used by English law officers.

Most of the limbs of law do everything in a jiffy; but ask what they mean, and they would be as much puzzled, as if you required of them the explanation of a common act of parliament.

This doesn't mean the expression or any of its spelling variants jeffy, jeffey,jiff, giffy or even jiffin (which @Phil M Jones unearthed) was unknown before 1780. The problem with dictionaries is that they will often record when a word was first printed, but words were certainly circulating in speech years, perhaps decades before anyone thought of writing them down. However in this instance, in a jiffy appears to have been a novel expression because the author of the 1780 excerpt criticizes its growing popularity among the upper class.

but the misfortune is, by degrees it has found its way into more polite assemblies, and a lady of taste was heard to say the other evening at the Pantheon, that she could turn Sir William B_____ round her finger in a jiffy.


Born in the USA

Were the newly independent citizens of the United States familiar with this expression? Were they the ones responsible for coining it in the first place? For this reason, I turned my attention there. Unfortunately, I was unsuccessful in my quest to find similar utterances in any American journal or newspaper dated before 1837. As a matter of fact, Chronicling America covers the historic period of American newspapers and select digitized newspaper pages between 1836-1922 thus the earliest example in newsprint I found was the following.

enter image description here The North-Carolina Standard. January 25, 1837

So I was left with Grose's jeffy and jeffey which was listed by John S. Farmer & W.E. Henley's.

Could it be that the idiom in a jeff(e)y was inspired by somebody notorious in that period? I sought citations and any references regarding Mr. Jiffy; Mr. Jiff; Mr. Jeffy; Mr. Giff; then the more sensible Mr. Gifford (earliest citation dated 1797); and lastly Mr. Jeffrey in Google Books between 18th and 19th century. But none of the names I scanned particularly stood out.

That being the case, I looked at @Phil M Jones's in a jiffin more closely. I realized to my embarrassment that the author of The Fall of British Tyranny was an American playwright, John Leacock. The theatrical play was published in Philadelphia in 1776, and its full and grandiose title was the following

The Fall
of
BRITISH TYRANNY;
or,
American Liberty
Triumphant. The. First Campaign.
A Tragi-Comedy of Five Acts,
as Lately Planned
at the Royal Theatrum Pandemonium, at St. James's.
The Principal Place of Action in America. Publish'd According to Act of Parliament

Not much is known about John Leacock, some historians believe he worked as a jeweler and a silversmith in Philadelphia; others maintain he was a Coroner; while one expert believes John leacock was a pseudonym for Colonel Thomas Forrest. Regardless of his real identity, I do know that the play was set in Boston and possibly before the city was freed and the British army evacuated March 17 1776. The play, we can surmise, was greeted with warm success.


What is the history and the origin of in a jiffy? Why did it catch on so quickly? Was it originally an obscure (now obsolete) dialectal expression that became just as popular in Scotland, Lincolnshire, London and Philadelphia (in a jiffin)? Something must have happened, someone or something had to be responsible for launching that expression.


Most likely hypothesis

Jeffy was Thieves or Rogues' cant for "lightning".

Wikipedia informs us that the code language used by thieves between the 15th and 18th century was a common feature in plays, works of fiction and pamphlets of that period; however, doubts persist as to its accuracy.

Cant was a common feature of rogue literature of the Elizabethan period in England, in both pamphlets and Elizabethan theatre. Thomas Harman, included examples in his Caveat for Common Cursitors (1566). He claimed that he collected his information from vagabonds he interrogated at his home in Essex. He also called it “pedlars’ French” or “pelting speech”, and said he was told that it had been invented as a secret language some 30 years earlier.

There are questions about how genuinely the literature reflected vernacular use in the criminal underworld. A thief in 1839 claimed that the cant he had seen in print was nothing like the cant then used by gypsies, thieves and beggars

Bearing this in mind I did find one American source that claimed jeffey was cant for lightning. The title of this dictionary was Vocabulum or, The Rogue's Lexicon by George W.Matsell, written in 1859. On page 46 the entry simply states

JEFFEY. lightning.


*WAG Hypothesis

1776 the year the United States gained independence from the British monarchy. A momentous event which changed the course of history and had everlasting effects on Britain's status and position as an empirical power.

Who was one of the seven Founding Fathers of the American Independence? Who was responsible for the drafting of the Declaration of Independence? And who is said to have written the draft in a mere seventeen days? Who was a prodigious writer in his lifetime and...

drafted 126 bills in [only] three years, including laws to establish fee simple tenure in land and to streamline the judicial system...

enter image description here

Thomas Jeff erson

Image taken from VMI Archives
* WAG I said it was a wild ass guess

  • Oh no, I thought I'd got this out of my head, but now you've got me wondering again. – Phil M Jones Sep 24 '14 at 11:11
  • WICKED GRIN Muhahaha – Mari-Lou A Sep 24 '14 at 11:57
  • Thanks to your inspiration, I have revised my answer, going back to 1767. Now, can I get on with some work? ;) – Phil M Jones Sep 24 '14 at 15:54
3
+150

Green's Dictionary of Slang offers an attestation from 1767 to the variant jiffin. This is earlier than any of the dates I've found in answers here, as well as earlier than any uses I can find in corpora, despite a very thorough investigation. Viewing the citation requires a paid subscription.

I’ll fetch ’um in a jiffin.

  • 1767 - ‘Andrew Barton’ Disappointment III iii

This line is spoken by a character named Trushoop, a cooper (someone who fixes casks and barrels). A larger portion of the text can be viewed on the University of Michigan website, thanks to Mari-Lou A for finding the link.

The play's full title is The Disappointment, or The Force of Credulity, the text of which was written by an anonymous author under the moniker "Andrew Barton."

A preface to a 1976 edition notes that the play was "the first opera written by an American for an American audience."

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

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