Faster than expressions
There are many idioms and phrases to express things related to speed in the English language. In this article, we will take a detailed look at idioms and phrases that use faster than. Hopefully, you find this list not only fascinating but useful as well if you are teaching, learning, or writing in English.
Note that some of these phrases are also used with as quick as instead of faster than, and in some cases like is also substituted. Let’s get to it and jump into the faster than expressions!
1 – Faster than you can say Jack Robinson (also used as – Before you can say Jack Robinson)
This odd and mysterious expression has no concrete origin. There are of course quite a few theories about but none of them can be proven. It first appears in print in the 1770s in both English and Scottish writing and means suddenly or in a very short amount of time.
One theory is that it came from a certain Jack Robinson who was Lieutenant of The Tower of London in the 1660s. He was said to be quite hasty to execute people who were beheaded very quickly. There is no evidence of this however except that a Sir John Robinson did serve as a lieutenant at that time. This same Robinson was was criticised for not being firm enough in handling a riot in 1675. This doesn’t suggest he was a brutal person.
Another colorful idea is that it came from an 18th century London socialite with the same name. This Jack or John Robinson was renowned for very short visits. It is said that his visits were so short that it seemed he was leaving as he arrived.
Example – Once the police arrived, the party was over faster than you could say Jack Robinson.
2 – Faster than a rat up a drainpipe
This funny phrase originated in Australia sometime in the 1960s. It of course means very fast and is related to movement. A rat scurries very quickly up and into drainpipes as it tries to flee danger. It is often used to describe a person moving in fear or moving quickly with great agility.
Example – When she saw the spider, she screamed and ran into the kitchen faster than a rat up a drain pipe!
3 – Faster than a speeding bullet
This originates from the fictional superhero character called “Superman”. It was first used to describe Superman on a 1940’s radio broadcast in the USA. The radio show also said Superman was “more powerful than a locomotive” and “able to leap tall buildings in one bound”.
For reference bullets travel at different speeds depending on their size and what they are fired from. Some of the fastest bullets travel at more than 1800 miles per hour.
Example – You will have to run faster than a speeding bullet if you want to catch that train, it leaves the station in 5 minutes!
4 – Faster than a minnow can swim a dipper
This is an interesting one, I can’t find the origin of it other than it likely came about from hunters and fishermen in the USA. A minnow is a fish and a dipper is a kind of bird in North America that can walk underwater. You can visualize the expression, that of a fish swimming as fast as it can to escape a bird that wants to eat it.
Example – When the surfer saw sharks in the water, he got back to shore faster than a minnow can swim a dipper.
5 – Faster than a New York minute
This faster than expression came about sometime in the 20th century in the USA. New York City is full of hustle and bustle where people live a fast-paced lifestyle. People are so busy that minutes finish very quickly. It is easy to see why this slang means very fast or sudden.
Example – There was a party that afternoon so the scheduled meeting was over faster than a New York minute.
6 – Faster than chain lightning
Chain lightning is lightning that moves in long zigzagged lines. A lightning bolt moves at 270 000 miles per hour which of course is very fast.
7 – Faster than a cat lapping chain lightning
This is used to describe something that moves very fast such as a vehicle, an animal, or a person. The origin of this idiom is unknown except that it comes from southern USA. We can surmise that cats are quick, they quickly lap their tongues as they drink, and chain lightning is very quick. Therefore, all together, it adds up to super fast!
Example – She must be hungry, she ate her dinner faster than a cat lapping chain lightning.
8 – Faster than a greased pig
To move faster than a greased pig is to move so quickly that nobody can stop you or catch you. Greased pig catching or pig scrambles occur at agricultural shows in the USA and country fairs in the UK. Pigs are greased with lard or cooking oil and released into an area for competitors to catch. They move swiftly as they don’t want to be caught and are very difficult to hold onto once greased.
This activity actually became illegal in the US state of Minnesota in 1971 and has also been outlawed in Ontario, Canada.
9 – Faster than a knife fight in a phone booth
This faster than expression is most commonly heard as like a knife fight in a phone booth which means very unpredictable and chaotic. When used as faster than a knife fight in a phone booth it of course means very quickly. Combat with sharp blades in such close quarters is bound to end in no time at all. The phrase using faster than is often used in southern USA.
Example – I don’t know how my car slid off the road, it happened faster than a knife fight in a phone booth.
10 – Faster than a prairie fire with a tailwind
This American phrase is often used with move or spread. Prairies are large open spaces of grassland. In times of dry weather, the grass can catch fire and quickly burn out of control. A tailwind is a wind that is blowing in the same direction that something is traveling. Thus, a prairie fire with a tailwind will move and spread exceptionally quickly.
Example – The rumors about the teacher spread through the small town faster than a prairie fire with a tailwind.
11 – Faster than green grass through a goose
This one is often used with a more colorful word than grass (It isn’t appropriate to put here but you can guess!). Ducks are known for their speedy digestion, and let’s say, going to the toilet very shortly after eating. The expression is used for things that are done very quickly. The original expression is said to be “like grease through a goose”.
Example – The athlete fell over during the race but got up faster than green grass through a goose.
12 – Faster than the blink of an eye
It is said that the average person blinks around twelve times each minute. People blink their eyes so quickly that they don’t even notice it. The actual speed of an eye blink is close to one-third of a second. This idiomatic phrase is also used as “in the blink of an eye” to describe something that happens suddenly or rapidly.
Example – The doctor said the injection wouldn’t hurt and would be over faster than a blink of an eye.
13 – Faster than a bat out of hell
This idiom not only means fast but also in a crazed manner. While it originated elsewhere and appeared in print earlier, it first became popular amongst British WW1 pilots. They no doubt flew as fast as they could and in erratic ways just like a bat to avoid being shot down.
The idea comes from a bat being released from hell into Earth which would of course escape as quickly as it could!
Example – When his wife was having a baby he drove faster than a bat out of hell to get to the hospital.
Other faster than expressions -
13 – Faster than the speed of light
14 – Faster than a sprinter out of the blocks
15 – Faster than a runaway train
16 – Faster than a politician changes his mind
17 – Faster than the devil can fly
18 – Faster than a scalded cat
19 – Faster than double-struck lightning.
20 – Don’t drive faster than your guardian angel can fly
21 – Bad news travels faster than good
Ideas for teaching the faster than expressions
Introduce these amusing phrases to your class along with some example sentences to help with context. Once this is done, see if students can make correct sentences using some of them. Afterwards, you can have fun making up your own faster than expressions and it makes for a good short activity.
There is no need for rules, even ridiculous faster than expressions can be fun. Let your class get creative, just make sure your students can give an explanation for newly invented faster than expressions.