Johnny Carson once joked that a New York minute is the length of time between when the traffic light turns green and the person behind you starts to honk.
Carson’s definition takes a jab at the stereotype that New Yorkers are impatient and perpetually in a hurry. But what is the real definition of a “New York minute”?
What is a New York Minute, after all?
The general consensus among the internet folk (from whom only the most reliable idiom-related knowledge is garnered) is that the phrase “New York minute” references the fast pace of life in New York City. Life on Manhattan Island is seen as subjectively faster than the speed in the rest of the world — so a minute in New York must go by much faster than a minute anywhere else.
Thus, “a New York minute” became a slang phrase indicating a thing that happens very quickly.
Whence "A New York Minute"?
The complete story of its origin — and the clever lad or lass who first uttered it — is lost in some undocumented conversation from several decades ago.
However, several websites claim the idiom originated in Texas around the 1960s, a shortened version of the phrase “A New Yorker does in an instant what it would take a Texan a whole minute to do.”
Of course, this phrase could go both ways — perhaps it’s not New Yorkers who’re fast, but Texans who’re slow.
There is, however, an earlier antecedent! The phrase appeared in print in 1954 referencing not a length of time, but an eensy-weensy little French poodle. The diminutive doggy was said to be “no bigger than a New York minute.”
That example, too, comes from a Texas source. Where, as everyone knows, they like things bigger. (Minutes, apparently, included!)
Does anyone else sense a little Texas-New York rivalry in this particular bit of horological slang?
For further idiom reference fun, see…
- "New York Minute" by Don Henley (performed by The Eagles), a song about appreciating what you have in the present moment, since life can change so quickly ("in a New York minute, everything can change")
- American Airlines commercial starring James Gandolfini, about the hectic pace of New York life (and featuring the Johnny Carson joke mentioned above)
- "New York Minute" by French Montana, sampling the Don Henley song above, and also suggesting the speed at which life can change
- New York Minute, a teen comedy about a life-changing 24-hour period in the lives of twin sisters