In a Jiffy – Idiom, Origin and Meaning

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Danielle McLeod

Danielle McLeod is a highly qualified secondary English Language Arts Instructor who brings a diverse educational background to her classroom. With degrees in science, English, and literacy, she has worked to create cross-curricular materials to bridge learning gaps and help students focus on effective writing and speech techniques. Currently working as a dual credit technical writing instructor at a Career and Technical Education Center, her curriculum development surrounds student focus on effective communication for future career choices.

Idioms are words that have a figurative use separate from their literal use. Most idiomatic words and phrases are easily discernible due to their literal origins, but the word jiffy is a bit of an enigma.

Jiffy means a quick amount of time, but it has no real origins that can be pinpointed. Instead, theories abound, and none are documented as proof.

Regardless, the word has been in use since the 18th century. Let’s take a closer look at what in a jiffy actually means and how it is used.

What Does “In a Jiffy” Mean?

In a Jiffy Idiom Origin Meaning

In a jiffy means in a moment. A jiffy is a small, indeterminate amount of time. Occasionally, the phrase in a jiffy is abbreviated to in a jiff.

For example:

  • The committee recognized and accepted the proposal in a jiffy, allowing the committee to move forward with planning without pause.
  • I could fix that in a jiffy if you only quit tinkering with it and let me at it.
  • With the new subway line open, people can commute from one side of the city to the other in a jiffy—avoiding the awful street traffic.

Jiffy is now also a recognized term of time value for various scientific measurements, such as the amount of time it takes for light to travel one centimeter in a vacuum, the duration of an alternating current power cycle, or the time between two ticks of the system timer interrupt in computing. These definitions make sense because the measurement is imperceivable to the human eye: in a jiffy indeed!

Origins of “In a Jiffy”

In a Jiffy Ngram
In a jiffy usage trend.

Jiffy entered the English language in the 1780s, defined as a brief moment or within an instant. The origin of in a jiffy is unknown, though it may have been a slang term used by thieves in the eighteenth century to mean lightning.

Another claim is that Raspe, a German writer and scientist, may have coined the word, but evidence of this is somewhat hard to narrow down despite the mention within the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

One of the earliest documentations of the full phrase “in a jiffy” being used appeared in the 1780 edition of The Town and Country Magazine:

“Most of the limbs of the law do everything in a jiffy….”

Another instance of the phrase in a jiffy appeared in 1796 in Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue:

“It will be done in a jeffy: it will be done in a short space of time, in an instant.”

In the late 18th century, scientist Gilbert Newton Lewis used jiffy as a measurement of time related to light traveling one centimeter in a vacuum. The results were one trillionth of a second, thus highlighting the absolute quickness of the measurement.

Let’s Review

Despite the word jiffy having no true origin, it began to appear in speech and writing in the 1780s. By the end of the 18th century, the word “jiffy” was being applied as a unit of measurement that was so quick it was near impossible to measure.

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