"That's a great deal to make one word mean," Alice said in a thoughtful tone. "When I make a word do a lot of work like that," said Humpty Dumpty, "I always pay it extra."

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Before you can say Jack Robinson

I love it when people ask me the origin of phrases or the meaning of words. I learn so much finding out the answers. Monica asked me where the phrase “Before you can say Jack Robinson” came from.

It means immediately or instantly and its origins were first quoted in Francis Grosse’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue in 1811. Grosse claimed it had its origins in a very volatile gentleman of that appellation who would call on his neighbours and then leave again before the staff could announce his name to the master of the house.

The phrase goes back at least to the 18th century and appears in Fanny Burney’s 'Evelina' of 1778. Two years later the dramatist Sheridan (who was also an MP) was attacking government bribery in the House of Commons. Members shouted at him to name names and he responded – looking directly at the Secretary of the Treasury, John Robinson, that he could ‘name him as soon as I could say Jack Robinson’.


  1. Thank you so much for this. One of those phrases I've wondered about but never got round to finding out.

    Now I got intrigued by Grose's Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue as well so I googled that and increased my knowledge even more... Apparently, he was a very fat man, who "took pleasure in the pun linking his name to his size." And he and an assistant "took midnight walks through London, picking up slang words in slums, drinking dens and dockyards and adding them into their 'knowledge-box'." !!!

  2. Sounds like an excuse for going pub-crawling to me!!