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.
Etymology and common variants
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.
The phrase first appeared in print in 1778 in Frances Burney’s novel Evelina (“I’d do it as soon as say Jack Robinson”), but probably was in wide use before that time.
According to Grose's Classical Dictionary (1785), the reference is to an individual whose social visits were so short that he would be departing almost before his arrival was announced.
Supposedly, an Englishgentleman of the early nineteenth century named Jack Robinson was a person who changed his mind. A person had to be quick to catch him in a decision.
Sir John (Jack) Robinson, the Constable of the Tower of London from 1660–79, held at the same time a judiciary appointment in the nearby City of London, and could and did condemn a felon in the City, then have him transported to the Tower where he commanded the execution, with the entire process completed "faster than you can say Jack Robinson".
John "Jack" Robinson (1727–1802) was Joint Secretary to the Treasury in England from 1770 to 1782 and regularly acted as a Government Whip, responsible for organising elections and political patronage. Of his reputation for political fixing, Nathaniel Wraxall wrote: "No man in the House ... knew so much of its original composition, the means by which every individual attained his seat, and, in many instances, how far and through what channels he might prove accessible." Therefore, fixing something "faster than you can say 'Jack Robinson'" was very fast indeed.
Yet another story relates the origin of the phrase to a comic song of the 1840s, written and performed by Tom Hudson, which tells of a sailor who returns from a voyage to discover that his wife has married another sailor in his absence.
In the late nineteenth century we have Sooner than ye'll say “Jock Hector!”, He'll them describe or draw their picture.
Connoting slowness or roundaboutness
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. In response to an inquiry by Ken Greenwald (a forum moderator at WordWizard), Joan Houston Hall (Editor of the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) project at the University of Wisconsin at Madison) researched the term's etymology. Her findings are listed below, chronologically.
"We [the senator-elect of Kansas] believe in the Government, which is simply the agent of the people, issuing their money directly to them without going AROUND ROBINSON'S BARN to find them". Chicago Daily Tribune. 30 January 1891. p. 4.
More, Rev. John. "Psycho-Analysis and the Ministry". The Homiletic Review. Vol. LXXXIII, no. 1 January 1922. New Haven, Connecticut: Funk & Wagnall’s. p. 18. The closest mouthed person, who seldom is given to talking about himself, will yet manoeuver in devious ways, will travel all AROUND JACK ROBINSON’S BARN, and will pull strings of all sorts, to get his name in the paper, or to inspire the editor to say of him what he would rather bite his tongue off than say himself.
Carroll, Lenore (1989). "Annie Chambers". U.S. p. “The eponymous Annie's life is the story of prostitution in Chicago and Kansas City from 1859 to 1933. '... keeping, permitting and maintaining a nuisance on said above described premises' and so on and so on three different ways AROUND JACK ROBINSON’S BARN . . .