Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

In A Jiffy

Posted by Elyse Bruce on December 22, 2010

A jiffy is a length of time whose length no one seems to agree on. 

Yes, a “jiffy” is the length of time between successive microprocessor clock cycles if one is discussing the computer engineering “jiffy.”  Words has it that a 2-gigahertz microprocessor has a 0.5 nanosecond jiffy whereas a 3-gigahertz microprocessor has a 0.333 nanosecond “jiffy.” 

And just as correctly, a “jiffy” is the length of one alternating-current (AC) utility power cycle. In the United States and Canada, this “jiffy” is 1/60 second and in many other countries, this “jiffy” is 1/50 second.

For some, a “jiffy” is the length of time it takes for a beam of light to travel one foot in free space — about 1 nanosecond.  And for others, a “jiffy” refers to the length of time it takes a ray of light to travel 1 centimeter in free space.  There are even some for whom a “jiffy” is the length of time it takes a photon to travel from one side of a nucleon to the other.

Everyone, however, agrees on the fact that a “jiffy” is an indeterminate period of time.

The Sarasota Herald Tribune newspaper published a full page advertisement with an unusually large and detailed artistic image on August 23, 1970 entitled, “The Great Crochet Put-Ons: Make and Wear in a Jiffy – New 10-Styles-in-One Kit.” 

The ad started off with stating:  “What’s in gear for fall with the new mini, midi, or longuette?  Add-ons, that’s what.  Eye-catching crochet separates you can make yourself  — often in an afternoon!”  The kit contained patterns for 2 fringed vests, 2 skirts, 1 poncho and hat, 2 pull-overs, 2 regular vests, and 1 scarf and hat … all for $3.98!

Back on August 19, 1938 the Spokane Daily Chronicle ran an advertisement from the Porter Scarpelli Macaroni Company of Portland, Oregon that promised:

Warm Weather Menus Solved In A Jiffy!  

Yes, the Porter Scarpelli Macaroni Company promised:  “Soups, salads, meatless meals — all ready in a few moments!  Tasty! Cheaper! At your grocer’s — wrapped in cellophane!”

And on July 4, 1917 the Eugene Register Guard ran an advertisement for the Standard Oil Company’s New Perfection Oil Cook Stove.  The advertisement announced proudly: 

Cook with Pearl Oil.  A New Perfection Oil Cook Stove means kitchen comfort and convenience.  Ask your friend who has one.  Used in 1,000,000 homes.  Inexpensive, easy to operate.” 

And yes, they were easy to use as the larger print announced: 

Ready to cook in a Jiffy!  Just the touch of a match and your New Perfection Oil Cook Stove is ready for cooking.   No waiting for the fire to burn up.  Easier to operate than a coal or wood stove: No smoke or odor; no dust or dirt.  Bakes, broils, roasts, toasts — all year round.

In 1882, the old and most trusted friends of Elizabeth Prentiss decided that her memoirs should be written and so “The Life and Letters of Elizabeth Prentiss: Author of Stepping Heavenward” was published by Anson D. E. Randolph & Company.  From the diary entry of March 18, 1841 the following can be found:

Headache — Nannie sick; held her in my arms two or three hours; had a great fuss with her about taking her medicine, but at last out came my word must, and the little witch knew it meant all it said and down went the oil in a jiffy, while I stood by laughing at myself for my pretension of dignity.  The poor child couldn’t go to sleep till she had thanked me over and over for making her mind and for taking care of her, and wouldn’t let go my hand, so I had to sit up until very late — and then I was sick and sad and restless, for I couldn’t have my room to myself and the day didn’t seem finished without it.

The phrase appeared in Francis Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue in 1796 as “in a jiffy” as well as “in a jif.”

The earliest published use is in Rudolph Raspe’s book, “Baron Munchausen’s Travels” published in 1785 in which the following passage is found at the onset of Chapter 23:

In short, having given a general discharge of their artillery, and three cheers, I cracked my whip, away we went, helter skelter, and in six jiffies I found myself and all my retinue safe and in good spirits just at the rock of Gibraltar. Here I unhooked my squadron, and having taken an affectionate leave of the officers, I suffered them to proceed in their ordinary manner to the place of their destination. The whole garrison were highly delighted with the novelty of my vehicle; and at the pressing solicitations of the governor and officers I went ashore, and took a view of that barren old rock, about which more powder has been fired away than would purchase twice as much fertile ground in any part of the world!

The next time someone tells you they’ll be with you “in a jiffy” or that they’ll get to something “in a jiffy” it might be a good idea to clearly define how long their “jiffy” is.  It may not be the same “jiffy” as your “jiffy.”

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