Friday, June 2, 2017

In a Toronto Minute? The Pre-History of "In a New York Minute".

“In a New York minute” is an expression that refers to the fast pace of life in the Big Apple. 

The expression’s roots can be traced back to the 1820s, but not to New York City.  The “York” in the original expression, “in a York minute,” referred to York, the capital of Upper Canada.  The “Town of York” officially changed its name in 1834, reverting back to the original First Nation’s place name – Toronto. 

A “York Minute”

The earliest examples of the idiom in print were recorded by British travelers or emigrants to the United States and Canada illustrating the colorful manners and language of the local rustics for their British readership:

Thus we call the capital of Upper Canada York, because there is a York in England; and as this metropolis is not of very great extent, and very likely never will be, it is termed Little York.  Mr. Gourlay, for political reasons, conceives it to be very properly named, and plays away on the subject with considerable humour.  A York shilling not being as large as a British one, tends also to detract from the importance of the place.  It is a saying with the Americans, when they set about doing any thing quickly, “that they will do it in a couple of York minutes,” time being even considered of less moment at Little York than elsewhere.

Toronto was the Indian name of this place, which means the “Hut by the Lake.”

John Mactaggart, Three Years in Canada: an account of the actual state of the country in 1826-7-8, London, H. Colburn, 1829, Volume 2, page 359.

In a tavern in St. Catharine’s Ontario:

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; during which time he traversed the United States and Canada, with a view to settle as an emigrant, London, E. Wilson, 1831, page 93.

In a tavern in Albany, New York:

Here, as in most of the large towns of the States, is a prevailing custom among the trades-people, and others resident in the town, of dining at the Tavern, from which custom the ladies are by no means exempt; the dinner hour is generally one o’clock, and is announced by the ringing of a bell, something like the custom in many of our small towns in England, on a market day; to assemble the farmers to the market table – In an instant you will find them assembling from all directions, and with a magical quickness that would remind you strongly of the wand of an Ella, or a Bologna, the company are seated to dinner; the ladies generally grouping themselves at one end of the table: the operation of dissection immediately commences, and in the space of something like a “York minute,” very many of the chickens, and other delicacies, will have performed a transit to the plates of the surrounding assailants, while the “Apple-sauce’ and “long sauce” will be making their evolutions and revolutions in every part of the table.

Anonymous Canadian Settler, The Emigrant’s Informant, or, A Guide to Upper Canada: containing reasons for emigration, who should emigrate, necessaries for outfit, and charges of voyage, travelling expences, manners of the Americans, London, G. Cowie, 1834, page 50 (italics in original).

In early 1834, legislators in Canada took action that would ultimately obscure the origin of the idiom:

– By accounts recently received from Upper Canada, it appears that the Legislative Assembly of that province has passed a Bill altering the name of their provincial capital from “Town of York” to “City of Toronto.” . . .  All newspapers, letters, &c. are now dated Toronto; and those who may have transactions with the capital of Upper Canada are now to address – “City of Toronto, late York.” – Cor. Of the Ayr Observer.).

“York (Upper Canada) Is No More,” The London Observer, May 25, 1834, page 4.

The decision was not unanimous:

Renaming York as Toronto angered some provincial legislators. During a March 1, 1834 debate in the assembly, detractors like William Jarvis claimed the change would cause confusion. John Willison felt it disrespected the memory of the most recent Duke of York, and pointed out that neither the state nor the city of New York had changed its name. Proponents of Toronto pointed out the name’s aboriginal origins and its meaning, which was then believed to be “meeting place,” and so was well suited to the seat of provincial government. Some legislators, such as William Berczy, felt Toronto rolled off the tongue better than York (“the sound is in every respect better”).

The idiom survived the name-change.  The next earliest example of “York minute” I could find was also from western New York.  An advertisement for a merchant promised:

In short, we are ready for trade, and we say to all, Give us a Call; and will satisfy you in a “York minute” there’s no use in looking any farther.

Penn-Yan Democrat (Penn Yan, New York), May 15, 1849, page 3.

But wherever it originated and whatever its original intent, it was not geographically confined forever, and would ultimately give way slowly to a “New York minute”:

The Daily Milwaukee News (Milwaukee, Wisconsin), December 29, 1858, page 1.

Although most of the early examples of “a York minute” seem to refer to something done quickly, an example from Buffalo, New York explains, consistent with the 1829 definition, that a “York minute” is not necessarily faster than a normal minute, but merely imprecise, which could, I suppose, be shorter or longer:  

“There is one portion of the day,” as your correspondent vedry justly remarks, “which may, with propriety, be called the ladies’ hour.  Just so.  That “hour,” however, is to the day, what the “York minute”[i] is to the ordinary hour; viz: two hours and a half.

The Buffalo Commercial (Buffalo, New York), November 24, 1860, page 3.

Some of the bloods who were out on New Year’s business Monday night went to Gilman’s Hall at 4 o’clock yesterday morning, and one of them who met two Germans in the passage with a boy who had received an injury to his leg in the Hall, took hold of the wounded limb and gave it a twist.  Although it was fun to the blood it was painful to the boy; his guardians stood upon the defensive, and both sides went to work “from the shoulder.” If any body supposes this transaction did not bring a crowd together in two York minutes . . . .

Hartford Courant (Hartford , Connecticut), January 2, 1861, page 2.

Hartford Courant, February 12, 1861, page 2.

Over time, as collective memory of the York, Upper Canada origins of the expression faded, the expression slowly became associated with a better known “York” – New York City.

The earliest example of “New York minute” appeared in 1870.  A man who discovered a “catamount,” or wildcat, under his bed had his pajamas ripped to shreds:

Hastly rising he jarken 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 there were upon him would not have made a bib for a china doll.

The Post (Middleburg, Pennsylvania), September 15, 1870, page 1 (crediting the Titusville (Pennsylvania) Herald).

Interestingly, a partially copycatted article published three years later replaced the original “New York minute” with “York minute.”  But perhaps it was inevitable, as this story originated near Ontario in northern New York.  A “North Woods” trapper near Sacondaga Lake, New York came face to face with a black panther in a tree – he had a gun, but it didn’t stop the cat from ripping his clothes to shreds:

Had David quietly backed out, he could have enjoyed his supper of venison and pancakes.  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.

New York Times, December 31, 1872 (crediting the Auburn (New York) Advertiser, December 28, 1872).

Before 1870, the expression was generally confined to the northeastern United States.  But both the 1870 catamount story and the 1872 black panther story were reprinted in numerous newspapers across the country.  The wide circulation could have helped spread the idiom in both of its forms.

Numerous other examples of “York minute” appeared in print in American newspapers throughout the 1870s, ‘80s and ‘90s, but very few examples of “New York minute”. 

I found one, isolated instance in 1872:

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

There is another possible, isolated instance from 1890, although the circumstances were such that it is not clear whether it is the idiom, or a literal reference to two minutes spent in New York City.  In a story in The New York Sun, a man mistakenly put his cigar into his pocket instead of his handkerchief; he was distracted while reading the Sun:

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 Did It,” New York Sun, September 7, 1890, page 15.

Both “York minute” and “New York minute” appeared in print during the first decade or so of the 1900s:

Atchison Daily Champion (Atchison, Kansas), August 14, 1903, page 1.

In a story said to be from a court case in Clayton, New York, a man was acquitted of assault with a deadly weapon because he was only trying to get rid of the poor help:

The case looked pretty dark for Blackiston until he rose to plead his own cause.  He painted a picture of domestic infelicity with a maiden who was defiant as well as obstreperous and who refused to be discharged and appealed to the jurymen as husbands and fathers if it wasn’t about the only thing left him under the circumstances to play the gun bluff game.  All that he desired was for the rebellious young woman to leave the house and his bluff worked all right and perhaps prevented a scandal.  The jury acquitted him in twelve New York minutes.

The Des Moines Register, December 1, 1903, page 6 (crediting the Nebraska Journal).

The anecdote was not from New York, however.  It was based on the real-life trial of the Rev. Francis C. Blackiston, of Smyrna, Delaware who, early one morning threatened to shoot the head off his purportedly lazy, good-for-nothing maid:

Evening Journal (Wilmington, Delaware), November 3, 1903, page 1.
His oratorical and rhetorical skills, honed by more than a decade behind the pulpit, and a bit of pandering to a jury of (presumably) similarly aggrieved men, won the day.  He admitted the facts, but asked for mercy – and got it:

“Witnesses to-day have sworn against me, and what they say is about true.  On the morning of August 17 I came down stairs very late and no breakfast was prepared.  Miss York, although we had been trying to discharge her for two months, was lying lazily across the lounge.  She refused to get my breakfast and I drove her out.  She abused me and threatened me.

“Now, gentlemen, put yourself in my place.  I had to make my home safe.  I started around the house, and knowing that my gun would bluff her and rid us of her, took it to the front door.  Wouldn’t you, every one of you, have done the same thing?

“Gentlemen, think of my wife and child.  Send me to prison and they go without shelter, even food.  Surely you’ll have mercy upon my.”

His eloquence brought his acquittal and unlimited rejoicing.

Philadelphia Inquirer, November 3, 1903, page 1.

For less obvious reasons, the idioms “in a York minute” and “in a New York Minute” also disappeared at about the same time, until “in a New York minute” reappeared in Texas in the early 1950s.
New York Minute - the Olsen twins.




In an earlier post, I pushed back the earliest known use of the idiom, “New York minute,” by eighty years, from the early 1950s to 1870, but missed the business about the precursor idiom.  Mea Culpa.  See, Wildcats and Wildcatters – the Very Long History of a “New York Minute”.

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