Yesterday I was a sent a picture of my young great niece running at her first school sports day. Her mum said, ‘She was going like a train.’ That is with full power, very fast.

There are lots of English expressions about speed and doing something very soon or very quickly / fast. We have ‘at the drop of a hat’. This is often used to refer to someone who likes to perform: They don’t wait for a full audience, but just come in, take off your hat and they will sing, dance, turn somersaults and all the rest. I had a cousin like that.  

A report in my newspaper says that in reference to time, the drop of a hat is equal to  5.7 metres per second, which is interesting, except I still tend to think in terms of feet and inches. Also, surely it depends upon how high up the hat was when you dropped it. Or does it? Is the speed constant, or does it increase? Does it depend upon the shape of the hat – some wide-brimmed hats would act more like a parachute, surely.

Full throttle is self-explanatory  - as fast as an engine can be driven. Apparently it is the same speed as "at full tilt", but I thought that referred to knights of old riding in tournaments, as the yard where they practised was called a tilt-yard, and they would tilt their lances.

What about a ‘bat out of hell’ which apparently is equal to 36.8 metres per second. How does that work? Where is hell? Do they have bats there? Are they allowed to leave? You need a theologian, not a linguist to even attempt an answer to that one.  

Another one is as fast as ‘a rat up a drainpipe’. I know rats can get in all sorts of places, but do they really climb up inside drainpipes? How do they do that? Why? Some things are easier to measure.  A speeding bullet apparently goes at 1,524 metres per second.

The phrase ‘faster than a speeding bullet’ was often applied to Superman, so he apparently flew around at over 1,524 metres per second.  He could also change his clothes ‘in the blink of an eye’ – that is  quite slow relatively, a mere 0.033 metres per second.

A speed demon is someone who does everything at full speed. We had a man like that in the house this year, and it was quite exhausting being in the same room as him. He only stayed about 5 minutes as he had two more appointments that afternoon, but he rushed around like a blue arsed fly (I doubt anyone has ever measured that), and it was so peaceful and relaxed once he left, even though there were still five people in the house.

It is good to do things quickly sometimes, we eat fast food, and let's face it the world spins at 1,040 mph, but we need to take our time for a bit of relaxation too. Maybe some of you prefer showers to baths: They use less water and are quicker, but sometimes it's good to put the brakes on, have a good soak and enjoy life at a snail's pace. 

More Idioms