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In a trice

Q From Robert Kaplan: In the expression in a trice, where does trice come from?

A Before Britannia ruled the waves, the Dutch were the dominant maritime nation of Europe and much of our seafaring vocabulary can be traced back to Dutch words, trice included.

It’s from the Middle Dutch word trîsen, to hoist, an older form of the rare modern Dutch word trijsen. It came into English in the late fourteenth century. In maritime usage, it meant to lift something using a rope and was usually coupled with “up”. In that form, it has been part of naval terminology pretty much ever since:

On the boatswain blowing his whistle the men mustered upon deck and formed line, whilst the captain, standing well in front of them, delivered a few words to them. “When I give the word,” he concluded, “you shall discharge your pieces, and by thunder, if any man is a second before or a second after his fellows I shall trice him up to the weather rigging!”

Cyprian Overbeck Wells, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, first published in the Boy’s Own Paper, Christmas 1886.

However, the more usual implication of trice up is not only to hoist something but also to secure it. Perhaps the best-known case is in the reveille call, “All hands heave out and trice up”, which originally told sailors to get out of their hammocks and lash them up out of the way. Here’s another common instruction from sailing-ship days:

He therefore turned the hands up, “mend sails,” and took his station amidship on the booms, to see that this, the most delinquent sail, was properly furled. “Trice up — lay out — All ready forward?”

Newton Forster, by Captain Marryat, 1832.

Landlubbers — from the first known user, Geoffrey Chaucer, in the Canterbury Tales — had a slightly different meaning, to pull quickly or suddenly at something, to snatch at it. If you did something at a trice, you did it in one pull, so immediately or without delay. In time trice changed from meaning a hoist or a heave to “instant” or “moment”.

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Last modified: 4 September 2010.