If you know this word, I am willing to bet that it brings a line of poetry to mind instantly. Not necessarily the same line for everyone, but my guess is that for a great many of us (Canadians especially) it’s from “The Cremation of Sam McGee” by Robert Service:

It was jammed in the ice, but I saw in a trice it was called the “Alice May.”

How about I give the whole stanza for context:

Till I came to the marge of Lake Lebarge, and a derelict there lay;
It was jammed in the ice, but I saw in a trice it was called the “Alice May.”
And I looked at it, and I thought a bit, and I looked at my frozen chum;
Then “Here,” said I, with a sudden cry, “is my cre-ma-tor-eum.”

(If you haven’t ever read the poem, read it. If you have, you know what’s going on.) I am also sure that I learned the word marge (in that sense) there, and possibly derelict too (I was young).

There are other places you might know it from, too. “Dolores (Notre-Dame des Sept Douleurs)” by Algernon Charles Swinburne:

Could you hurt me, sweet lips, though I hurt you?
Men touch them, and change in a trice
The lilies and languors of virtue
For the raptures and roses of vice

To the Chief Musician upon Nabla: A Tyndallic Ode” by James Clerk Maxwell:

I come from fields of fractured ice,
Whose wounds are cured by squeezing,
Melting they cool, but in a trice,
Get warm again by freezing.

Rabbi Ben Ezra” by Robert Browning:

Not on the vulgar mass
Called “work,” must sentence pass,
Things done, that took the eye and had the price;
O’er which, from level stand,
The low world laid its hand,
Found straightway to its mind, could value in a trice

(Not the most memorable line, but a beloved poem – or at least its first two lines: “Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be.”)

Perhaps you know it from Shakespeare – King Lear, maybe:

This is most strange,
That she, who even but now was your best object,
The argument of your praise, balm of your age,
The best, the dearest, should in this trice of time
Commit a thing so monstrous, to dismantle
So many folds of favour.

Or Twelfth-Night:

I am gone, sir,
And anon, sir,
I’ll be with you again,
In a trice,
Like to the old Vice,
Your need to sustain

Or The Tempest:

On a trice, so please you,
Even in a dream, were we divided from them,
And were brought moping hither.

Or maybe you think of the song “Violets for Your Furs,” by Matt Dennis and Tom Adair, first sung by Frank Sinatra (and later by many others):

It was winter in Manhattan, falling snow flakes filled the air
The streets were covered with a film of ice
But a little simple magic that I heard about somewhere
Changed the weather all around, just within a trice

Or perhaps you think not of poetry but of Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, in which at one key moment Rochester says (though not to Jane) “I’ll make you decent in a trice.”

Or maybe you like rap music and are familiar with Obie Trice (which, atypically for rap artists, is his real name, no gimmicks), or maybe you know (or know of) someone else with the family name Trice. But that won’t tell you what trice means.

Or just maaayyybe you were in the US Navy and regularly heard the shipboard reveille announcement, which includes “all hands heave out and trice up.” But if that’s where you know it from, you might have a different sense of its meaning.

If you learned the word from poetry (or fiction), then you will almost certainly have gotten from context that a trice is a very short period of time, a moment, an instant; a thing that happens in a trice or on a trice or within a trice happens lickety-split. It also, thanks to rhyme, has an above-average likelihood of involving ice, or perhaps vice, or some price (or something nice?). 

But where does the word come from? It looks like twice and thrice, but it’s not twice and certainly not thrice, it’s once and immediately. Does it relate to truce? But how could it? A truce is an indefinite suspension of hostile activity, something that is expected to last far longer than a mere moment. Perhaps trace? But a trace is a scintilla of evidence, not a scintillation of a star or spark. Um… tryst? Oh, come on. (And if you know the Spanish phrase en un tris, literally ‘in a crack’ – tris means ‘crack’ – and having very much the same sense, I regret to say that English in a trice is too old to have come from that. But hmm.)

In fact, the navy reveille gives the clue, though the trail might be hard to follow at first. The origin is a Dutch word, noun trijs, ‘pulley, hoist’, and verb trijsen, ‘hoist’, from which a less specific sense ‘pull suddenly’ or ‘snatch’. And so a trice came to be a term for the amount of time it takes to do a single pull on a hoist – about a half a second, if the timing in the shanty “Haul Away Joe” is any guide.

Funny, though. The word trice hardly seems heavy enough to bring to mind such a muscular action – more like tripping lightly across the ice. Ah well, what it signifies no longer requires the pull of the original; if you wish to think of it simply as a thin slice of time, or some similar choice, you may. After all, we all (or nearly all) know it from poetry, and light verse in particular. And if you happen to drop it into conversation – “I’ll be there in a trice” – it’s more likely to have the tone of “I’ll be with you in the squeezing of a lemon” than of “I’ll arrive in the jerk of a hoist.” Provided your hearers know the word at all, that is.

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