The Grammarphobia Blog

In a jiffy

Q: I was packing my latest manuscript in a Jiffy bag when I thought of a question for my go-to word guys. What is a jiffy?

A: It’s an instant or a moment, which doesn’t describe the amount of time we’ve taken to get to your question. Sorry, but our in-box has been overflowing lately.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes “jiffy” as a colloquial noun of “origin unascertained,” and defines it as “a very short space of time.”

The OED says the word is seen “only in such phrases as in a jiffy,” but it later notes the use of “jiffy” in the names of padded bags and other products.

The first Oxford citation is from Baron Munchausen’s Narrative of His Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia (1785), by Rudolf Erich Raspe: “In six jiffies I found myself and all my retinue … at the rock of Gibralter.”

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology speculates that the word might have been “spontaneously coined” by Raspe, a German librarian, writer, and scientist.

The full phrase “in a jiffy” was first recorded (with the spelling jeffy) in Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1796): “It will be done in a jeffy: it will be done in a short space of time, in an instant.”

In the 1950s, “Jiffy” showed up in trademarked names for a padded envelope, a book bag, and a peat pot for sowing seeds. The first Jiffy Lube opened in Ogden, Utah, in the 1970s, and franchises followed … in a jiffy.

Check out our books about the English language