Two Shakes of a Lamb’s Tail



This book explores the source and use of 355 common phrases and words in our wicked, wonderful, wacky English language. 

While it’s raining cats and dogs, we’ll horse around with pie in the sky and, when we’re at the zoo, a bird will briefly land in our hand before it bites the dust. However, devil-may-care and full of beans, we’ll use body language to discuss breaking the ice and calling a spade a spade. If we go belly up, though, we’ll bite the bullet, pick up on the scuttlebutt, face the music, and then think outside the box. Now that we have an axe to grind, we’ll let the chips fall where they may, grab a snickerdoodle, go on the lam, and start living the life of Riley.

Put that in your pipe and smoke it!




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two shakes of a lamb’s tail

Lambs are playful and move remarkably fast. Hence, “two shakes of a lamb’s tail” means “very quickly” or “in the blink of an eye” and has done so since at least 1840 in America.

We don’t know where the phrase originated, but people generally agree that lambs can shake their tails so fast that two shakes are almost as fast as one.

The phrase first appeared in Ingoldsby Legends by Richard Barham, published in 1840. But we can assume the phrase existed in modern language long before that.

Here is the first part of a letter to the editor which appeared in the Nelson Evening Mail in New Zealand in 1881: “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.”

The phrase is also, surprisingly, used in science. A “shake” is an informal unit of time equal to 10 nanoseconds. It has applications in nuclear physics, helping to conveniently express the timing of various events in a nuclear explosion. Like many nuclear units of measurement, it is derived from Top Secret operations of the Manhattan Project during World War II. The typical time required for one step in the chain reaction (i.e. the typical time for each neutron to cause a fission event which releases more neutrons) is one “shake,” and the chain reaction is typically complete by 50 to 100 shakes.

innocent as a lamb

An innocent lamb is naive, inexperienced, or guiltless of a crime. In contrast to ignorance, innocence is generally viewed as positive, suggesting an optimistic view of the world.

People who lack the mental capacity to understand the nature of their acts may be seen as innocent, regardless of their behavior. Therefore, “innocent” can refer to a child, or to a person of any age who is mentally disabled.

However, technology has given children in our contemporary world a platform where they are referred to as “digital natives,” and often seen as more knowledgeable than adults. This is frequently true. Children born into the world of digital media will learn how to use it as easily as they learn language.

Many of us over 50 are indeed as innocent as a lamb when it comes to computers!

mutton dressed as lamb

This disparaging term is used for an older woman who tries unsuccessfully to look young and attractive in the style of younger women.

“Dressing as lamb” may have originated as describing a woman seeking marriage. It is still sometimes an economic necessity for a woman to marry while young enough to bear children. But, more often, it’s used by a woman trying to pretend she’s younger than she is.

The phrase is first found in print in An Irish Beauty of the Regency, the journal of social gossip that Mrs. Frances Calvert published in 1811.

“Mutton” was used as slang for a prostitute in the 1500s. From early in the 1800s, the word was also used in a derogatory manner for either sex as an abbreviation of “muttonhead,” or stupid person. This, in turn, is thought to be the origin of the term “mutt” meaning both a silly person and a dog.

These two lines are apt:

“Things are seldom what they seem,
Skim milk masquerades as cream.”

[W. S. Gilbert, H.M.S. Pinafore, Act II].


like a lamb to the slaughter

The lamb is someone who acts innocently, without knowing that something bad is going to happen, and therefore behaves calmly and does not fight the situation.

It arises from the Bible (King James Version), which has several allusions to animals going to slaughter. The one from Isaiah 53:7 says, “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth.”

The allusion to the helplessness of lambs was used in the 1991 film The Silence of The Lambs.


might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb

If you’re going to sin, sin big! Today, the phrase is often used to mean that once you’ve become involved in an action, legal or not, you might as well commit to it entirely.

The earliest written example is from John Ray’s English Proverbs of 1678: “As good be hang’d for an old sheep as a young lamb.”

The origin lies in old English law, when many crimes brought the death penalty. One of those crimes was sheep-stealing. So, if you were going to steal a sheep, you’d take a full-grown one rather than a lamb, because the penalty would be the same no matter which you took. In the 1820s, the law was reformed to end the death penalty for that crime.

A similar expression is “in for a penny, in for a pound.” If you’ve risked losing a penny, perhaps it’s worth risking a pound.

Both phrases are really more about the risk than the outcome. You might not be hanged at all; you’re merely risking that possibility. Most of us don’t actually believe we’ll be hanged or lose the pound. Or that it’s going to rain on Sunday’s picnic.



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