[Ads-l] Precursor to a "New York Minute"

Peter Reitan pjreitan at HOTMAIL.COM
Sat May 27 16:45:12 EDT 2017

Years ago Barry Popik traced the modern emergence of "New York Minute" to Texas in the early 1950s.

A couple years ago, I found an early example from 1870, in a story about shooting a wildcat (a catamount) in the oil regions of Pennsylvania.

It seemed as though the coincidence of the early example in an oil region and the emergence of the expression in the oil region of Texas 80 years later suggested a possible way the expression made it to Texas.

However, there were isolated examples of the expression in 1872 Kansas and 1908 Vermont, and a few other possible (yet ambiguous) examples.

I wrote a blog post about it at the time.


I just ran across a possible precursor idiom - possibly with a slightly different meaning.

The expression a "York minute" shows up as early as 1831, with several examples throughout the 1840s, '50s, ' 60s and '70s.

An example from Buffalo, New York in 1860 suggests that a "York minute" is a short period of time, but longer than an actual minute:


"There is one portion of the day," as your correspondent very justly remarks, "which may, with propriety, be called the ladies' hour.  Just so.  That "hour," however, is to the day, what the "York minute" is to the ordinary hour; viz: two hours and a half.

Buffalo Commercial, November 24, 1860, page 3 (Newspapers.com).

My initial inclination was to think that "York" refers to York, England, perhaps a sleepier town than London, where time isn't so precious or precise.

But I am not so sure.  It might be American.  The earliest example of the expression I have found so far - 1831 - is from an English writer describing the scene at an American tavern.  He sets several apparently local Americanisms apart in quotations - including "York minute."  I am also not so sure that the "York minute" is always something more than a minute, as described in Buffalo in 1860.  Many of the early examples, including the earliest example, a "York minute" appears to be some brief moment of time - not as long as a minute:

1831 [excerpt]

By the time they have all taken a "drink" or two a-piece, and swallowed a mouthful of water after it, you will hear "guessing" and "calculating" enough, undoubtedly, and something better, "I don't think!"  Be careful they do not tread on your toes at this time, and if you wish to retain a seat, do not get up from it even for a "York minute."

Joseph Pickering, Inquiries of an Emigrant; Being the Narrative of an English Farmer from the year 1824 to 1830, London, E. Wilson, 1831, page 93 (HathiTrust).

In 1873, a story about a Northwoods trapper shooting a panther appears to be a rewritten version of the 1870 Pennsylvania story with "New York Minute," but using "York minute"  instead:


But no, he raised the old rifle and fired.  In one-fourth of a York minute, Bill Stewart's exact time for skinning a Montezuma bullhead, all the clothes upon him would not have made a bib for a china doll.

Chicago Daily Tribune, January 5, 1873, page 2 (Newspapers.com).



Mrs. Matt Peel's Minstrels give their last concert in this city, for the present, at Touro Hall tonight.  If you have the blues, these darkies will shake them off in three York minutes.

Hartford Courant, February 12 1861, page 2.

For me, the big question is why was it a "York minute" and was it originally English.  The change from York to New York seems natural in the US, but if it is American, why would it have been "York minute" in the first place, unless it was an old English expression that survived in the US.

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

More information about the Ads-l mailing list