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

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The answer below is 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.

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." It's hardly definitive, but it seems at least possible to me that that gag (and/or the finger part of it) was created by Ronny Graham, the screenwriter for "Your Hit Parade."
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