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Jack Robinson

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.”


All fall down.

Dear Word Detective: I have a favorite word that I’ve only heard from one person. It may be a regionalism (from a very small region, perhaps). The word is “ramacackle.” I’m not sure of the spelling. It means run “down, dilapidated, falling apart.” I heard it in reference to an old house. Has anyone else ever heard of “ramacackle,” or do I live in my own little world? Or both? I think we should all start using it constantly, because it’s such a great word, and we need to have it in our language. — KR.

A region of one? Works for me. Actually, it reminds me of the US Army recruiting slogan from a few years ago, “An Army of One.” I never understood what the heck that was supposed to mean. To paraphrase Calvin & Hobbes, government money going to ad agencies weirds language.

Interestingly, the idea of “a region of one” is entirely valid in matters of language. Every human being speaks an “idiolect,” a personal version of whatever language they think they speak, and that idiolect inevitably differs, in at least some tiny respect, from the idiolects their family, friends, etc., speak. (“Idiolect,” combining “idio,” a prefix from Greek meaning “distinct” or “personal,” with “lect” from “dialect,” was coined by Bernard Bloch, an American linguist, in 1948.) Your personal vocabulary, choices of idioms and metaphors, grammatical quirks, pronunciation of words, sentence length and many other variables distinguish your particular idiolect. Many linguists consider any language, in fact, as the sum of the idiolects spoken by its speakers, rather than as an “ideal” fixed language from which we all depart to various degrees in personal speech.

Meanwhile, back at your actual question, I have been unable to find any record of “ramacackle” or anything close to it. I think what we have here is, to paraphrase Cool Hand Luke, a failure to communicate. In all likelihood, the person who said “ramacackle” actually meant “ramshackle,” which does mean “run down, dilapidated, falling apart.” (It’s also possible that “ramacackle” is an obscure folk variant of “ramshackle,” but, if so, it must be very obscure indeed.)

“Ramshackle” first appeared in print in 1820 as an adjective describing a person or action considered erratic, unstable or “disordered,” and was quickly applied to buildings, etc., that were severely dilapidated, run-down, etc. “Ramshackle” soon also became a noun meaning such a building, vehicle, etc. (“There are ramshackles and hovels ‘out yonder’ so packed with families, so crowded with children,” 1912).

“Ramshackle,” interestingly, originated as a variant on the much older (1675) adjective “ramshackled,” which may sound like what happens to a bad male sheep when the farm police show up, but actually meant the same thing as “ramshackle.” Follow the trail a bit further back and you hit “ransackle,” which, back in 1605, was a variant of “ransack,” meaning “to search thoroughly in order to find something” (“Vainly ransacking my mind for some expression of thanks that wouldn’t sound ironical,” 1903). “Ransack” comes from the Old Norse “rannsaka,” meaning “to search a house.” Although we often use “ransack” today to describe the actions of burglars, when the word first appeared in English in the 14th century, it was primarily used to mean to search a person or house for something stolen from another person. But whether the motive is law enforcement or law-breaking, the result of “ransacking” has always usually been a mess.

So, put that all together and we have “ramshackle,” originally describing a thing, place or person that appeared to have been “ransacked” and was left shaky, run-down and barely able to stand.


Way, way back, when 17 was middle-aged.

Dear Word Detective: Is there a relationship between the words “art” and “artifice”? I’d always thought so, but when I referred to the American Heritage Dictionary, I found that a different root was listed for each word. How do words like “artful” and “artless” fit into all this? — JK.

Eh, well, you’re kinda using the wrong tool there, pal. See, whatcha got in your American Heritage — don’t get me wrong, it’s a bang-up book — is a synchronic dictionary. What you need is more of a diachronic approach. Your synchronic dictionary, the American Heritage, your Merriam-Webster, is mostly for folks who want to know what a word means, how to spell it, and so on. So a synchronic dictionary (from the Greek “syn,” meaning “same,” plus “chronos,” time) looks at a word mostly as it is used now, along with usually just a smidgen of its history. Your diachronic dictionary (“dia,” meaning “throughout,” plus our pal “chronos” again), the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) being the biggie in the field, is a historical dictionary; it traces words back to the cave paintings (or as close as the gang at Oxford can get). For unscrewing the inscrutabilities of etymology, it’s like the difference between a nice pair of pliers and a really good socket set. A jaunt through the OED shows that all the words you mention do, ultimately, share a common origin.

In the beginning was the common noun “art,” which first appeared in English around 1300 with the meaning of “skill in doing something, especially as a result of practice or knowledge.” This sense reflected the Latin root of “art” (“ars, art-”), which meant “professional or practical skill, craftsmanship, ingenuity, etc.” This sense eventually developed into all the various “arts” we know today, from painting and music, etc., to the less useful “arts” of poker tactics and designing exotic financial derivatives.

“Artifice” first appeared in English in the early 16th century with the meaning “skill in making something,” or “ingenuity,” and didn’t develop its modern sense of “cunning, trickery, clever device” (almost always used in a negative sense now) until the 17th century. The roots of “artifice” were “ars” in the “skill” sense plus the Latin “facere,” meaning “to make.” The original “something made cleverly” sense of “artifice” persists in the adjective “artificial,” which, although often applied in a derogatory sense, can also simply mean “not existing naturally.”

“Artful” showed up in the late 16th century meaning, as you might expect, “displaying technical skill” (literally “full of art”) or simply “clever” (“So artful a Machine as every Man is,” 1718). By the early 17th century, however, “artful” was being used in a more figurative sense of “crafty, devious,” as in the Artful Dodger, the young pickpocket in Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist.” As used today, “artful” can mean simply “showing art or skill,” but frequently carries at least a hint of deviousness (“The artful old man who hides his major offences behind a frank admission of peccadilloes,” 1955). So being “artful” can be either a good and a bad thing.

“Artless” mirrors the positive and negative senses of “artful.” When it first came into use in the late 16th century, it meant simply “lacking skill” or “uncultured, crude.” But by the early 18th century, “artless” had taken on a connotation opposite to the “sneaky” sense of “artful,” and meant “guileless, innocent, sincere” (“What was amazing was not the deranged lewdness of her performance, but the sweet, artless way she smiled at the end,” 2007). Paralleling “artful,” in modern usage “artless” can mean either “clumsy, crude, primitive” or “simple, honest and sincere.” It all comes down to the motive behind one’s “art”: to enrich the world or to pick its pocket.