In C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, I noticed the repetition of the phrase "faster than you could say Jack Robinson" as a descriptive sentence in both The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe and The Magician's Nephew. Was this a phrase of the time, a saying coined by Lewis, or a deliberate reference to an in-universe person?


1 Answer 1


"Faster than you can say Jack Robinson" (meaning very quickly) is a common English expression, from well before C. S. Lewis's time to the present day. The online Oxford English Dictionary (paywalled but you may have access through your public or university library) has citations ranging from 1763 to 2016. Quoting from the Wikipedia page for Jack Robinson (mythical person):

Jack Robinson is a name present in two common figures of speech. When referring to Jack Robinson, it is used to represent quickness. In contrast, the phrase "(A)round Jack Robinson's barn" has the opposite connotation, implying slowness, as it is often used to refer to circumlocution, circumvention, or doing things in roundabout or unnecessarily complicated ways.

[. . . .]

Multiple citations explain references to Jack Robinson as meaning quickness of thought or deed. The normal usage is, "(something is done) faster than you can say Jack Robinson", or otherwise, "before you can say Jack Robinson". The phrase can be traced back to the eighteenth century.

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    Good answer, but I'm not sure I'd consider it common in the present. I would consider it old fashioned in my native British English, and I don't recall hearing it in any of the mass of US media we consume so I presume it's now uncommon there too. Commented Nov 8, 2021 at 9:04
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    @JackAidley Forsooth 'tis less common now than 'twas threescore years ago.
    – user14111
    Commented Nov 8, 2021 at 9:22
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    Is this the same Jack who was nimble, quick, and jumped over candlesticks?
    – Skooba
    Commented Nov 8, 2021 at 14:23
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    Here's an ngram of the phrase "you can say Jack Robinson", which is found in both of the samples bolded in this Answer. Seems to have been rising since a low point in 1976. NGrams are limited to five words, so I can't do one for the complete phrases. Commented Nov 8, 2021 at 17:53
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    "Jack Robinson" is also a stereotypical English name, and the Narnia books are quite keen on stereotypical English things. However, that's a very post-hoc rationale; consider that if Lewis had said "in two shakes of a lamb's tail," we'd probably be reading Christian symbolism into that. Sometimes a Jack Robinson is just a Jack Robinson. Commented Nov 9, 2021 at 1:13

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