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Where did the expression 'playing the world's smallest violin' come from?

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Mandatory xkcd reference and follow-up –  F'x Apr 26 '11 at 19:04
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TV Tropes may be an appropriate resource for this question... –  Andrew Grimm Apr 26 '11 at 22:33
    
I grew up observing the following scenario: Two people are talking, and one of them who is not impressed with the other person's tale of woe and considers it to be be mere whining, begins rubbing his thumb and forefinger together and saying sarcastically, "Do you know what this is? It's the world's smallest violin playing the world's saddest song!" –  rhetorician Nov 3 '13 at 16:17

7 Answers 7

Not being aware of the origin, I had to do a little searching and, to my amusement, came across a an entry on wiki.answers that references the A-Team using this in a T.V episode; you can check the link for complete text if you wish, but the following information is all we need to take from that article:

...interesting but you may rest assured the expression goes back a lot farther than a late 1970's episode of M*A*S*H. In fact the show writers may have been trying to tell us that the expression was around in the early 50's when the show is set. I don't know for sure about that but definitely an older expression.

From there I found a answer I guess I could swallow. It stated that a variation of the phrase exists as "The world's Smallest Violin Playing Hearts and Flowers" - while that doesn't quite ring the same senses, it could go to explain the origins more plainly, namely by giving us a link to Theodore Moses Tobani:

It's also referred to occasionally as "The world's Smallest Violin Playing Hearts and Flowers". Hearts and Flowers, is a song composed by Theodore Moses Tobani (with words by Mary D. Brine) published in 1899. Though the melody for the song originally appears in Alphons Czibulka's Wintermärchen compilation.

A purely instrumental version of the song Hearts and Flowers on violin was used as an accompaniment to a multitude of silent films and began to represent melodramatics and mock-tragedies. This was a contributing factor in the origin of the phrase "Break out the violins" as a sarcastic expression of sympathy.

The first reference to playing the smallest violin in popular culture I'm aware of is in an episode of M*A*S*H from 1978, in which Maj. Margaret Houlihan (Loretta Swit) rubs her thumb and forefinger together and states "It's the world's smallest violin, and it's playing just for you."

As you can see, this also captures the usage in M*A*S*H too, which was apparently in 1978. The composition mentioned is from 1899 (according to this source, but 1893 according to Wikipedia), 1893 sounds like it might be the earliest so far.

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I realize this not exactly a cite, but in the early 70s, long before M*A*S*H, my mom used to do this all the time and I'm pretty sure it was a thing from her childhood (1940s Manhattan). She would say, "It's The Smallest Violin In The World and it's playing Hearts and Flowers just for you." Then she'd sing lyrics that I'm pretty sure she made up: "My heart, it bleeds for you, dah-di-dah-dah..." Hey, that reminds me, Mother's Day is coming up. –  Malvolio Apr 26 '11 at 19:04

Here's a 1964 reference to the world's smallest violin in Travel magazine:

RIPLEY GOES TO CANADA New Ripley's Believe It Or Not Museum in Niagara Falls, Ont., is located on Clifton Hill, boasts possession of such unusual oddities as world's smallest violin — presumably for playing saddest song.

It's just a snippet and Google Books often gets dates wrong, but here's confirmation the museum opened in 1963, so could still be considered new in 1964.


Here's a 1952 snippet in The Idaho Forester (Volumes 34-45 - Page 14):

Noted for telling his troubles on the "World's Smallest Violin" and for his big black buick. Ward's activities include the Associated Foresters, Newman Club, and the Society of American Foresters. Brookwell hobbies are women, hunting, fishing ...

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It may have its roots in an arrangement for the violin titled, "Hearts and Flowers" (from Wiki):

Published in 1893, though its melody originally appears in a collection called "Wintermärchen" written by the Hungarian composer Alphons Czibulka in 1891. Through its use accompanying certain silent films, the instrumental violin version has come to symbolize all that is melodramatic, sentimental or mock-tragic. Indeed, the humming of the tune is often combined with the miming of violin-playing to indicate mock-sympathy at someone's misfortunes.

By the 1970s we have evidence that it is viral, per this scene from M*A*S*H2:

Showing Winchester her thumb and forefinger rubbing together, Houlihan responds: "Charles, do you know what this is? It's the world's smallest violin, and it's playing just for you."

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The answer is that Jack Benny had Jess Hardie create for him quite literally the world's smallest violin, which Jack Benny, then played.

The sarcastic element came from Jack as part of his shtick.

If any of you want to see a replica of the 14-carot gold violin made for Jack Benny, click here.

That Mash episode that referenced the phrase just borrowed it Jack.

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apparently it's from Ron Graham, screenwriter for "Your Hit Parade" but arguably there should be an earlier reference:

I'm far from certain it's the original source, but the earliest use of the "world's smallest violin" phrase I am aware of is in an episode from the sixth season of the American sitcom "M*A*S*H." The episode, "Your Hit Parade," first aired on January 4, 1978. In it, Maj. Charles Emerson Winchester III (David Ogden Stiers) complains to Maj. Margaret Houlihan (Loretta Swit) that Winchester has been displaced from his tent, "The Swamp," by cots full of post-operative wounded soldiers. Showing Winchester her thumb and forefinger rubbing together, Houlihan responds: "Charles, do you know what this is? It's the world's smallest violin, and it's playing just for you."

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I was wondering about the origin myself and found this page. After listening to an old record, I know I heard the Hearts and Flowers song when something small with big eyes was trying to exaggeratedly extort sympathy from Bugs Bunny who responded with the saying. I'm not sure which episode or year, and the bit may have even been used several times, the song especially. While it may not be the source, I'm sure Loony Tunes has done as well a job spreading it through the generations as sarcastic parents responding to childish tantrums.

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Perhaps not-so-notable mention: The phrase is used in the movie Steppenwolf (1974). I'm 90% sure it is not used in the book on which the movie is based.

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Welcome to EL&U. We love sources here, and like when answers contain sources we can learn from. :-) We certainly appreciate your input. –  medica Dec 24 '13 at 7:14

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