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Two shakes of a lamb's tail

Posted by Pdianek on January 25, 2004

In Reply to: Two shakes of a lamb's tail posted by Lotg on January 25, 2004

: : : : : anyone know the origin of this phrase, as in "I'll be back in two shakes of a lamb's tail"?

: : : : : thanks

: : : : TWO SHAKES OF A LAMB?S TAIL ? "One who has seen a lamb shake its tail, sees readily that this saying means with no loss of time, for a lamb can shake its tail twice 'before one can say Jack Robinson.' Usage appears to be entirely American, going back a hundred years or longer. (Note publication date of Mr. Funk's book.) The probabilities are that the saying is a humorous enlargement of the older 'in a couple of (or brace of, or two) shakes,' a saying first record by Richard Barham in 'Ingoldsby Legends' in 1840, but probably much older. This latter saying has been variously interpreted ? as alluding to a double shake of the hand, two shakes of a dice box, two shakes of a dustcloth, or whatever it may be that takes little more time in shaking twice than in shaking once." From "A Hog on Ice" by Charles Earle Funk (Harper & Row, New York, 1948).

: : :
: : : As a kid growing up on farms, I always thought it was to do with the process of docking a lamb's tail. Which is far less attractive than your theory. Although, I have to admit that even as a kid I struggled to see the connection because that process has nothing to do with shaking, and was always rather cruel I thought. So there's a big chance I was being conned, as farmers are wont to do to kids from time to time.

: : Quote from above:
: : "Usage appears to be entirely American, going back a hundred years or longer."
: : The phrase is very well known in the UK and was around in my youth before WW2

: Yes I think it more likely to have a UK origin, given it seems to have been handed down through my ancestry too, and we white Aussies obviously owe most of our language to our original Anglo/Irish/Scottish heritage.

: Plus, and now I'm probably showing my ignorance, I didn't think sheep were as big a deal in years gone by (farming-wise) in the US as in Australia, NZ, the UK and parts of Europe. Am I wrong there?

Sheep in the US were never as numerous (percentage of grazing animals) as in NZ or Oz, but the 19th century saw huge range wars in the Western states and territories between sheepherders and cow ranchers. The ranchers perceived that sheep would ruin the then-open range with their sharp hooves, cutting through the grasses' roots, thus forcing cattle to starve. Some of these ranchers' great-grandsons now object to bison (one of the West's burgeoning populations) for similar reasons (despite miles of barbed wire fencing), yet it's all economic: if bison becomes the preferred red meat, what happens to cattle ranchers?