Thursday, April 2, 2015

Thursday Trivia: Two Shakes of a Lamb's Tail

So, what do this ...                                           and this:
 have in common?

Read on, and you'll see!

But first, let's talk about the origin of today's phrase. As we all know, if you're going to get something done in two shakes of a lamb's tail, you must be blazingly fast.

This idiom's been around a while. It began in the U.K., possibly as long ago as the late 18th or early 19th century. Its first use in print can be traced back to a memoir written in three stages, between 1840 and 1847, by a British clergyman named Reverend Richard H. Barham.

This memoir, entitled The Ingoldsby Legends, was a popular collection of humorous (and sometimes a bit gruesome!) folk tales.

Photo of lambs on hillside: Flickr Creative Commons 3.0 by Mance
Another thing: this first in-print example wasn't even the complete use of the phrase.
Our two shakes occur in the story called "The Babes in the Wood":
'I'll be back in a couple of shakes;
So don't, dears, be quivering and quaking,
I'm going to get you some cakes,
And a nice butter'd roll that's a-baking!'
Totally unrelated - but fun - Trivia:
Barham's collection of tales was so popular, in fact, that it inspired Walt Disney, who adapted one of the stories into the classic animated Fantasia.

The story was of
a Lay-Brother named Peter and a certain incident with beer, which became the basis for the Sorcerer's Apprentice tale (Disney swapped the beer for bathwater).

Going forward a few decades, we finally track down the full use of the phrase, in a letter to the editor of a New Zealand newspaper in 1881, where the author observes:
"A Brooklyn man spent seven hours writing an essay to prove that a woman is inferior to a man, and then spent two hours more and a heap of profanity in an ineffectual attempt to thread a needle, a job which a woman finally did for him in about two shakes of a lamb’s tail."
But what in the world does all this have in common with radioactive material?

Simply this:
When nuclear physicists back in the 1950's were grasping for a simpler way to express the length of time it took for a single nuclear reaction to take place, they chose the phrase "two shakes of a lamb's tail" (shortened to "Shake") over "10 nanoseconds."

CMOS Wafer by Rico S. via Creative Commons
You still find it in use today, both in literature and in electrical engineering. Signal processing in an integrated circuit also occurs in the nanoseconds range, so the Shake is used here, too.

And for anyone who has a copy of Tom Clancy's The Sum of All Fears, go grab it and turn to Chapter 35. It's entitled "Three Shakes" for a reason!

And that's how a Shake became an official unit of time. No foolin'.

"The Lay of St. Dunstan" (or "The Lay Brother's Tale")
Text of The Ingoldsby Legends, by Rev. Richard H. Barham. Out of print/Public Domain.
Idiomation: "Historically Speaking - Two Shakes of a Lamb's Tail" by Elyse Bruce
Photo of lamb: Flickr Creative Commons 3.0 by Noel Reynolds
The origin of the Shake
Tom Clancy's "Three Shakes"


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Cat Skills

by Leslie Goodwin.

Drawing will be held
Tuesday, April 7.

Winner announced April 8.




  1. Replies
    1. Faraday: no prob! It's lead lined (plus it's empty at the moment anyway)!

  2. Very interesting! I always say shake of a cat's tail :)

  3. Very interesting. Thank you for my lesson for the day

  4. Okay, I've learned my new thing for the day can I go home now? :)

  5. way kewl guys !!!

    heerz two a happee easturr ~~~~~ dino eggz onlee ~~~~burd free kinda week oh end ♥♥♥

  6. Faraday you have very smart pawrents! Wow this was very interesting and a big THANK YOU for our copy of RESCUED. We got it yesterday and our Mom is certainly enjoying reading each story!

  7. Wow! Had no idea. We do know catching a lamb is tough, so shaking its tail twice would be nearly impossible!

  8. Well! Mes never knew that!!!!
    And its PC Related!!!

  9. Really interesting! Me and The Staff did not know all that! I watch the lambs over the road in the field and their tails are jolly quick!!!

  10. We didn't know that! That's very interesting indeed.
    Lola and Lexy

  11. We didn't know that a Shake was actually a measure of time. We certainly learned something new today, too!

  12. Who knew!!! We had no idea lambs were so scientific. ; ) haha! how quick do you think two shakes of a cat's tail is?

  13. I use the term and now I know I am almost a nuclear physicist! WooHoo! Mom is going to be proud!

  14. * looks at tail* I still have one..phew...:D

    Pawkisses for an eggstra Happy Easter and hope your Easter Bunny Day is filled with fun in every way :) <3

  15. It's very interesting to see how things evolve.

  16. Now that is very interesting , especially how it evolved to be used in science. XOCK, Lily Olivia, Mauricio, Misty May, Giulietta, Fiona, Astrid, Lisbeth and Calista Jo


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