Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Wildcats and Wildcatters - the Very Long History of a "New York Minute"

Wildcats and Wildcatters - 
the Very Long History of a "New York Minute"

“I’d make love to you in a New York minute; and take my Texas time doin’ it.”

The expression “Everything is bigger in Texas!” may have originated in New York.

Conversely, the expression, “in a New York minute,” denoting a very short time (suggestive of the perceived (or real) fast-pace of life in The Big Apple), may have first achieved widespread use in Texas.  Barry Popik’s online etymology dictionary, The Big Apple, lists several early attestations to the expression from Texas; the earliest from 1954:  

“Betty Jean Bird of the Pirate Club has what she claims the smallest French poodle in the nation . . . It’s no bigger than  New York minute and that’s only thirty seconds.”

San Antonio (TX) Light, November 1954, page 5F, col. 5, 8,

The earliest attestation for “New York minute,” listed in the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), is also from Texas, from 1967.[i]     

But although the expression may owe its current level of familiarity to Texas, the expression may be older – MUCH older; and probably not from Texas.  Although the written record is very sparse, the expression, a “New York minute,” appears in print at a rate of about once every forty years, or so, dating back to 1870.   

Although the expression may not be from Texas, it may not be a coincidence that the expression found its way there.  The earliest known use of a “New York minute” is from 1870, in Titusville, Pennsylvania.  The Oil Creek valley, that runs through Titusville, Pennsylvania, was the epicenter of the Pennsylvania oil rush that started in 1859 and peaked in about 1891.  But just as oil production waned in western Pennsylvania, the opening of the Corsicana oil field in 1894, and the Spindletop strike in 1901, sparked the Texas Oil Boom.  

Did oil field workers, also known as wildcatters, migrating from the oil fields of Pennsylvania to the oil fields of Texas, bring the expression, a “New York minute,” to Texas?  I do not know.  But I do know that the earliest example of a “New York minute” that I could find in print, comes from a Titusville, Pennsylvania newspaper, and involves an actual wildcat and a former wildcatter.  The story was also picked up in several other regional newspapers that I could find (and presumably many more), which gave the expression the opportunity to reach a wider audience (many of them wildcatters), if it was not already a well-known expression in the region.  The phrase is used in the article without explanation, which may suggest that the phrase was already familiar to the readers:

A Wildcat Under the Dutchman’s Bed.

West Hickory, besides being noted for its big wells, dry holes and rattlesnakes, has a new and charming feature of attraction in the vast number of wildcats or catamounts, that are to be found in the neighboring forest, and which make night hideous with their mellifluous notes when on a forage.

Near the headwaters of West Hickory creek lives an humble and honest agriculturist by the name of Adam Goodman who, after engaging in the perilous occupation of an oil operator on the creek, reformed and opened a keno bank, and with the accumulation of several weeks retired from business, out of the back window (as a policeman entered the front) and purchasing a few acres of soil began to farm it. . . .

[O]n Saturday night last . . . he was awakened by an unearthly howl, a crash of glass and the striking of a “heavy something” upon his breast.  At first he thought it must be a horrible nightmare, caused by too rich viands. . . .  All was quiet, and finally thinking it must have been an oil creek bedbug on a raid, he dismissed the subject, and was preparing to settle into an all night’s sleep, when a scratching was heard beneath the bead.  Hastily rising, he jerked on his unmentionables, and dropping on all fours, began to claw beneath the bed after the midnight intruder.

He found it, and in one-fourth of a New York minute all the clothes that were upon him would not have made a bib for a china doll.  He finally found himself in the corner partly scalped, with his lower limbs looking as though he had been through a wool carding machine; while at this moment with a spit and a growl, a catamount disappeared through the open window.  Such is the simple tale of Adam Goodman.  He now desires to emigrate to some spot where the insects are not so troublesome.  His farm is a good one, but he cannot stand the cats.

The Bloomfield Times (New Bloomfield, Pennsylvania), November 15, 1870, page 2 (emphasis added); also, The Post (Middleburg, Pennsylvania, September 15, 1870, page 1 (crediting the Titusville Herald); a condensed version appeared in the Urbana Union (Urbana, Ohio), September 21, 1870, page 4.

[See Update below for an additional early example - from 1872.]

After going into hiding for nearly forty years (under a Pennsylvania farmer’s bed, perhaps?), the phrase appeared again; this time in Vermont.  In 1908, the Middlebury (Vermont) Register reported the goings-on at the Middlebury “village meeting”:

A motion to pay $300 in addition to the $200 already voted by the town was proposed.  It did not take more than a couple of New York minutes to decide that the motion should go on the table.

Middlebury Register, March 27, 1908, page 1 (emphasis added).

While both of these early uses of “New York minute” seem to unambiguously reflect the modern sense of the phrase, a “very short period of time,” two other early uses of the expression, from New York newspapers, are not so clear.  But they may, nevertheless, reflect a general awareness of the existence of the phrase at the time.  I will let you be the judge.

In 1890, The New York Sun published a humorous story about a man so engrossed in reading The Sun, that he absent-mindedly slips his lit cigar into his coat pocket, instead of his handkerchief:

About two New York minutes slipped away into eternity.  Then the air was rent with a sudden war whoop, the sitter made a clean jump of six feet, and a second after getting his equilibrium he was tearing off his coat tails and dancing all kinds of jigs.

The Sun, September 7, 1890, page 15, column 5.

Did it literally take two minutes, literally in New York City, for him to feel the burn – or did it take two, quick, proverbial “New York minutes”?

In 1915, Saks placed several advertisements in The Sun for Men’s suits:

The difference between this and most clothing sales is too important for you to overlook.  This is not one of those over-advertised philanthropic sales of overlots, designed to help out some unfortunate and mysterious clothing manufacturer.  In the first place, we made these suits ourselves, and inasmuch as we keep our assortments at par right up to sale time, you get the double benefit of greatly reduced prices on selections that are right up to the New York minute.  But do it Now!

The Sun, July 14, 1915, page 3.

Were the suits as “up to the minute,” as one would expect for New York Fashions, or were they so “up to date,” as to be a mere “New York minute” away from perfect up-to-datedness? 

Then the phrase went into hiatus for another forty years, before popping up again in Texas, in the 1950s. 

The decades-long gaps in the written record are inexplicable.  Perhaps the phrase percolated through the years in an oral tradition.  Perhaps the expression traveled with Pennsylvania wildcatters who followed the oil business to Texas at the end of the nineteenth century.  Perhaps the expression was reinvented, independently, every three or four decades, by like-minded people who viewed New York City with the same jaundiced (or astute) eye.  We may never know.

It just goes to show how any figure of speech, if neglected or unused, can be gone – in a New York Minute – only to reappear again – a Texas-sized period of time later.

The New York Sun, July 14, 1915.

UPDATE - April 28, 2016:

I found one more early example of "New York Minute" in a newspaper in Kansas from 1872:

On Wednesday last, the City Council appointed E. G. Russell, City Marshal, vice C. Crumb resigned.  Ezra says to evil doers, beware, or he'll "snail them within half of a New York minute.

The Osage County Chronicle (Burlingame, Kansas), February 29, 1872, page 3.

 If you can figure out what, "snail them," means, let me know. 

Update - June 2, 2017:

The prehistory of "a New York minute" is even older than I understood when I wrote this piece more than two years ago.  The precursor idiom, "a York minute," dates to at least the 1820s, and refers to Toronto, Ontario (then known as York, Upper Canada) and not New York City. See my new post, In a Toronto Minute? The Pre-History of "In a New York Minute".

[i] Michael Quinion, WorldWideWords.org.

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