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Growing up in Canada, I heard this dialogue a hundred times:\

Dude: "What time is it?"
Guy pantomimes watch-checking, but his wrist is bare
Guy: "It's a freckle past a hair."

Wiktionary even has a scant entry, except with the nouns flipped: https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/a_hair_past_a_freckle

I've even noticed this joke fading; perhaps it is because of smartphones.

Is there a 'ground zero' for this phrase?

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  • What does Wikipedia suggest the reasoning behind the expression is? Jan 28 at 16:20
  • 1
    Heard it in the 6th grade.
    – Hot Licks
    Jan 28 at 16:53
  • 7
    Its two freckles past a hair, Eastern Elbow Time.
    – Hot Licks
    Jan 28 at 17:05
  • 2
    We have a phrase in Denmark, which is somewhat similar, in translation: it's five minutes to bare arm
    – Stefan
    Jan 29 at 16:33
  • Even though this joke may have originated among the speakers of English, it does not seem to involve anything that is specific to that language: it would be equally (in)effective in a translation in any other language, given that the speakers of all human languages can have freckles and hair on their arms.
    – jsw29
    Jan 30 at 21:35

4 Answers 4

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There are different variants of the phrase but it boils down to the same joke.

The phrase two hairs past a freckle, also one hair, or a hair, past a freckle, is used as a jocular reply by a person who does not have a watch, when asked what the time is; while replying, they will look at the back of their wrist as if they were wearing a watch.(wordhistories)

The same source shows that it it pretty recent:

The earliest occurrence of two hairs past a freckle that I have found is from the letter that a soldier named Dusty (whose chest had “swelled out about six inches” because he had just been promoted to flight sergeant) wrote to his mother on 30th August 1943—letter published in The Canyon News (Canyon, Texas, USA) of 2nd September 1943:

Well, Mom, I guess that is about time for me to stop writing. I just asked Bill Lasher the time and of all the answers to get was “I have just exactly two hairs past a freckle.” Till the next time, Mom, I’ll just say, Love to all, Dusty.

Apparently, the phrase was used in another sense, that of being 'microscopically' accurate when shooting:

Jonathan Storm used the phrase two hairs past a freckle in a different sense in his review of the pilot episode for the U.S. television crime series Justified, with the U.S. actor Timothy Olyphant (born 1968) as Raylan Givens—review published in The Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) of 16th March 2010:

Givens works out of the Lexington, Ky., branch of the U.S. Marshals Service. His boss is a plainspoken guy, and his associates include a no-nonsense African American woman and a sniper who can hit a spot two hairs past a freckle from 300 yards.

There's a lot more to read about it in this article, you can find out more about other variants of the phrase if you wish.

You can definitely play with the phrase as this hilarious post says:

Everyone knows though that ‘three hairs past a freckle’ is 10.15 and that two moles past a pimple is 10.30. For the record, three hairs past a pimple is 1.45 and a freckle past a pimple is 5.30. 11 plooks is, obviously, noon and, 6 boils, is midnight. 2 freckles past a rash is 2.30 and an ingrown toenail before a 5 o’clock shadow is six o’clock.

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  • 1
    Good research. I first heard this joke from a friend in fifth grade (age ten or eleven) and had always assumed it was a play on the phrase "a hair past." A normal answer to "what time is it" might be "a hair past nine" (meaning, ~9:01). Thus "a hair past a freckle" would be a nice garden-path pun. But that doesn't work with "two hairs past." Apparently 10-year-old me was off the mark.
    – Juhasz
    Jan 28 at 18:18
  • @Juhasz Must be one of those jokes of Western folklore (I liked the name of this source provided in Sven's fine answer) that one makes in a conversation on the spot, and it's so catchy that it becomes very quickly a popular phrase commonly used. It takes time for such phrases to make it into the dictionaries, though.
    – fev
    Jan 28 at 18:27
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As fev's answer suggests, the earliest form of the expression involved hairs past freckles rather than freckles past hairs—although the kindred expression "according to the hairs in my wrist" may be even earlier. Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Catchphrases (1977/1985) has this entry:

two hairs past a freckle. 'When we {in our schooldays, c. 1958–65} were asked the time was, and we didn't have a watch, we'd look at the back of our wrists as if there was a watch there, and say "two hairs past a freckle"' (Levene, 1978) P[aul] B[eale, commenting in 1985]: the idea, if not the actual phrase goes back a decade or two earlier: our school version, earlier 1940s, was 'according to the hairs on my wrist...'

An instance of this wording appears in an unidentified script from The Goon Show, broadcast at some point between October 1954 and January 1956, reprinted in The Goon Show Scripts (1972):

MORIARTY Don't be a fool — this is no time to take a bath, it's getting late.

SEAGOON Nonsense — plenty of time — according to the hairs on my wrist it's only half past ten.

GRYTPYPE-THYNNE (disbelief) The hairs on you wrist say half past ten?

SEAGOON Yes.

One early instance of "hairs past a freckle" (cited in Greybeard's answer) ups the number of hairs to ten. From the California Folklore Society's Western Folklore, volumes 13–14 (1954[–1955?]):

28d. What time is it?

Ten hairs past a freckle (or mole or some feature).

The oldest recorded instance of the joke that I've been able in the form "freckle[s] past a hair" to find is this brief mention in Southern Folklore Quarterly, volume 26 (1962) [snippet view]:

2.72 Two freckles past a hair.

Another fairly early occurrence is in "What Time Is It?" in Lore and Language, volume 3 (1979) [combined snippets]:

L. C. recalls (July 1979) that in the sixties, at a primary school in Portadown, Co[unty] Armagh, a child who was asked the time and did not possess a watch would scrutinize his or her left wrist for a moment and then answer Two freckles past a hair. Strictly speaking this is less a put-put-off than what the Opies term a "crooked answer".

I couldn't find the 1943 instance from the Canyon [Texas] News cited in fev's answer online.

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The saying seems to be American, as I can find no trace of it before this:

Western Folklore, Volumes 13-14 (pub. California Folklore Society), 1954 - Folklore, Page 194, (28d) "What time is it?" "Ten hairs past a freckle/or mole or some feature."

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It needs to be understood that this originated with Jack asking Sam "What time is it?"

Sam normally wears a watch but doesn't have one on right now, but he absent-mindedly looks at his forearm where the watch would be. He's a bit startled to find the watch missing, but he studies his arm for a second or two and comes up with "two freckles past a hair" or some such.

This is amusing enough that Sam and Jack make it a routine of sorts, and it catches on with their friends.

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  • My understanding was that the original conversation was between Sam and Janet, of "Sam and Janet Evening" fame.
    – Sven Yargs
    Mar 23 at 0:31
  • @SvenYargs - Hadn't heard that one. But then, of course, I have trouble hearing stuff across a crowded room.
    – Hot Licks
    Mar 23 at 1:14

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