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New York minute

Q From Michael Powers: The term New York minute is well known in the USA to mean a very short period of time. Where did the phrase originate and why?

A Despite its intimate relationship with that ceaseless city of rush and hurry, it might not be from New York. The Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) quotes this explanation of the term, from 1984: “Immediately. Equates to a nanosecond, or that infinitesimal blink of time in New York after the traffic light turns green and before the ol’ boy behind you honks his horn.” This is from Texas Crude by Ken Weaver, a glossary of Lone Star state slang and expletives that, though sometimes obscene, has to be believed.

So it is likely that it began as an outsider’s jaundiced view of the lack of patience shown by the Big Apple’s urban cowboys. That doesn’t necessarily tie it to Texas, even though DARE’s first known example, from its own field records, puts it in that state as long ago as 1967. My guess is that by the 1970s it was becoming fairly widely known; I base this on finding a mention of a racehorse with the name New York Minute in Maryland in 1976, which surely suggests the term had by then achieved some notoriety.

It’s more than likely to be some rural hayseed’s witty remark, coined far from the madding crowd, that had been circulated and reinvented for many years before people such as Ken Weaver began to take note of it. Its progenitor, that mute inglorious Milton, is likely never to be known.

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Page created 14 Feb 2004