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The Feds and the Phrase

Answers to Questions About New York


The following is from the July 27, 2012, edition of The New York Times. SMU Law Professor Elizabeth Thornburg is co-author of Lawtalk: The Unknown Stories Behind Familiar Legal Expressions.

August 9, 2012


Q. A lawyer told me that the slang use of “making a federal case out of it,” meaning giving undue importance to something, is strictly New York in origin. Is that true?

A. Did Jimmy Durante have a big nose?

The growing importance of the federal justice system was brought home to the public in the 1930s with headlines about federal agencies catching bootleggers and gangsters, notably Al Capone, convicted of federal income-tax evasion. Eventually, “federal case” made its way to vaudeville.

Jimmy Durante, the beloved comedian from the Lower East Side with the gigantic nose and the gravelly voice, took his vaudeville routines to radio, and he is the first person known to have made the joke. In early 1944, on a cigarette company’s radio show, he was satirizing grand opera:

“Now take Romeo and Juliet. Romeo has to leave Juliet. Now does he say, ‘Shoo-shoo baby’? No. In opera, he says:

[Operatic chord]

‘I have but a moment to spend with you.
A moment, my dear, to spend with you,
A moment to spend, a moment to spend,
A moment, a moment, a moment ...’

He’s got one moment to spend and he’s taking three hours to tell her about it. Why, the guy’s making a federal case out of it.”

Durante’s skit was quoted in a book about radio comics in 1945, and it was picked up by others, including Walter Winchell in 1948. But the phrase didn’t really catch on outside New York until it was used by a comedian on Milton Berle’s early television show.

The story is told in “Lawtalk: The Unknown Stories Behind Familiar Legal Expressions” (Yale University Press, 2011), and on the New York etymology Web site the Big Apple.

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