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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Mason

Two Shakes of a Lamb's Tail

How quick is two shakes of a lamb’s tail?

I don’t think there is a scientific answer, but it must be awfully fast. If you do something in two shakes of a lamb’s tail, you’re quite speedy.

Example 1

We called in our pizza order at 7:00 and it was delivered in two shakes of a lamb’s tail, still hot from the oven.

Example 2

Nelson said he’d email the report in two shakes of a lamb’s tail, but I’m still waiting. I’d better check my spam folder.

As far as I can tell, the origin of this idiom is straightforward. The presumption is that it doesn’t take a lamb long to shake its tail, so anything completed in that duration would be almost immediate. However, immediate, as we see in the examples above, could mean different things in different situations.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the phrase was first recorded around 1855 as “in the wag of a dead lamb’s tail.” (J. F. Kelly Humors of Falconbridge) Other recorded uses were two (or three) jerks of a lamb’s tail and a whisk of a lamb’s tail.

Interestingly, the word shake is sometimes used to denote a short period of time, and the OED lists phrases like brace of shakes, half a shake, and a couple of shakes. Some of these references pre-date the 1855 example above, which makes me wonder whether the origin is more connected to shake than any animal. Nowadays, a shake can also refer to a 10 nanoseconds. (For context, one nanosecond is one billionth of a second.)

Now that’s faster than any lamb’s tail!

What are some of your favorite time idioms?

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