Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Two Shakes Of A Lamb’s Tail

Posted by Elyse Bruce on January 28, 2011

In case you are wondering, yes, “shake” is a recognized unit of time.  At the time of the first atomic bomb, scientists needed a term for an interval of time equal to 10 nanoseconds. Since two shakes of a lamb’s tail is very quick, scientists coined the word “shake” to describe this unit of time.  But where does this phrase come from originally?

In the Toledo Blade newspaper of March 30, 1961 in the “Tell Me Why” column, A. Leokum started the column by writing:

Suppose you ask someone to do something for you quickly.  He might say:  “I’ll do it in a minute.”  But he might also say: “I’ll do it before you can say Jack Robinson” or “I’ll do it in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.”  The point is that when we set up a unit of time such as an hour or a minute, we are doing it by agreement or convention.  We have decided that so much and so much time shall be called a “minute” or “hour.”  But in setting up divisions of time there are certain natural events that can guide us.

That being said, two shakes of a lamb’s tail was a recognized time unit in the 1920s as evidenced in Pittsburgh (PA) in an advertisement that ran in The Gazette Times newspaper on May 3, 1920.  The advertisement for The Men’s Store of Pittsburgh: The Only Place In Western Pennsylvania Where You Can Buy New York’s Finest Rogers Peet Clothes read:

In two shakes of a lamb’s tail!  Replenishing your wardrobe may take even less time than that — our stock of Spring Suits and Overcoats is so ample.  A size for every build.  They’re “made to fit” not “to measure.”  Highest type of tailoring. Prices reasonable.

Back on September 28, 1881 a Letter to the Editor appeared in the Nelson Evening Mail in New Zealand.  The letter began with:

A Brooklyn man spent seven hours writing an essay to prove that a woman is inferior to a man, and then spent two hours more and a heap of profanity in an ineffectual attempt to thread a needle, a job which a woman finally did for him in about two shakes of a lamb’s tail.

A generation before that on August 26, 1853 in an article entitled “Turning The Tables” and published in the New Zealand newspaper, the Daily Southern Cross, the following was published:

A correspondent of the ‘Dublin Warder’ shows how an old acquaintance once turned the tables upon the bailiffs.  Two smart-looking fellows dressed as sailors, and with a rolling seaman-like gait, called at his house, and chucking the servant under the chin, told her to tell her master that they had brought commands from his brother, who was at that time at sea.  The credulous debtor eagerly opened the door and was soon in the arms of the bailiffs.  After complimenting them upon t heir ingenuity, he invited them into a back parlour, and begged they’d wait till he’d send off a bit of a note to a friend that he expected would arrange it for him.  “The messenger was back in the shakin’ of a lamb’s tail; and, my dear life, ’twasn’t long till the tables wor rightly turned, and the brace o’ shoulder tappers frightened out o’ their seven sinses by the arrival of a press gang; and, says Misther Blake, throwin’ the freemason’s sign to the officer, who happened, as Providence would order it, to be a Leithrim man. Here’s a pair o’ light active chaps that have deserted their ship and are disgracin, the blue jacket by actin’ as bailiffs.”  Sure that was a sore day for the disguised bailiffs, for notwithstanding their entreaties, they were obliged to go with the gang!

In the end, the phrase first appeared in Richard Barham’s book “Ingoldsby Legends” published in 1840 however that it was used with such ease in a news article in 1853 gives reason to believe that the phrase existed in modern language long before 1840.

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