The little man who was barely there.
Dear Word Detective: My wife often uses the expression “quick as you can say Jack Robinson” to denote something that can be done or happen very quickly, as in “That house got built quicker than you can say Jack Robinson.” I am wondering where this expression originated from and what in the world is the basis for it. — Andrew Workum.
Welcome to the party. There’s quite a crowd here waiting for the answer, but I think there’s a seat on the davenport over there. Unfortunately, the only refreshments we get are things they consider “etymologically interesting,” so I hope you like swill and gruel. You should be glad you missed last week. Two words: Haggis Night. Anyway, you’re lucky you’re here and not down the block in Whole Nine Yards Stadium. Things get pretty hairy in there, what with all the ropes, machine guns and burial shrouds.
As you may have guessed from that paragraph, the precise origin of the phrase “Quicker than you can say Jack Robinson” is, unfortunately, a mystery of long standing. There have been a predictable slew of theories proposed about origin of the phrase, to which we will get shortly. But before we begin, it’s worth noting that nobody actually knows where the name “Jack” itself came from. “Jack” first appeared in written form in the 13th century, and most scholars believe that it was adapted from the French “Jacques.” But “Jack” in English has always been used as a “pet” or “familiar” name for “John,” and there’s a school of thought that “Jack” evolved all by itself in English without the help of “Jacques.”
One data point in favor of “Jack” being rooted in “Jacques,” however, is that “Jacques” has long been used in French as a “typical name” signifying a man of low social status, “the common man” or “a regular guy.” By the mid-16th century, “Jack” was playing the same role in English, and was used in phrases such as “every man jack” (everyone) and “on one’s jack” (by oneself, alone), as well as a casual form of address for an unfamiliar man (“Whatchoo lookin’ at, Jack?”). “Jack” was (and still is) also used to mean a manual laborer who performs specific jobs, such as a “steeplejack” or a “lumberjack” (but the true “jack of all trades” was, sadly, last spotted riding out of town on a unicorn).
One of the most interesting uses of “jack” that developed was as a term for a device or tool that performed the function of an imaginary helper or otherwise proved helpful in a task. Thus we use “jack” to mean the gizmo we use to raise a car, a fitting or socket into which something important plugs, or one of a thousand small parts of larger machines. Uses like these eventually led to “jack” becoming a slang synonym for “small” or “nothing,” as in “You don’t know jack about haggis.”
“Before you can say Jack Robinson,” meaning “quickly, in a very short time (or suddenly)” first appeared in print in 1778 in Frances (Fanny) Burney’s novel “Evelina” (“I’d do it as soon as say Jack Robinson”), but probably was in wide use before that time. The most vivid theory about the origin of the phrase traces it to a Sir John Robinson, who served as His Majesty’s Lieutenant at the Tower of London around 1600, and supposedly became famous for the alacrity with which he conducted beheadings. Robinson certainly existed and held the job; Samuel Pepys referred to him as “a talking bragging bufflehead.” But to say that this theory lacks solid supporting evidence would be a gross understatement; among other problems, there’s no record of the phrase, or a reputation for quick action, ever being tied to Robinson at the time.
It’s more likely, as the early lexicographer of slang Francis Grose suggested in 1811, that at some point there was an individual named Jack Robinson who became locally famous, perhaps in London society, for the brevity of his visits, and the phrase simply eventually spread. It’s also possible that a popular song or story at the time concerned just such a rude Jack Robinson, whose behavior was echoed by Groucho Marx in that famous song from “Animal Crackers” more than a 150 years after Burney’s novel: “Hello, I must be going, I cannot stay, I came to say, I must be going. I’m glad I came, but just the same, I must be going.”