‘little man, you’ve had a busy day’: meaning and origin

The phrase little man, you’ve had a busy day is addressed, often with ironic pity, to someone who has had an arduous day.

This phrase originated in a very popular 1934 song, Little Man, You’ve Had a Busy Day, by the U.S. songwriters Mabel Wayne (1890-1978), Al Hoffman (1902-1960) and Maurice Sigler (1901-1961).

These are the words of the song, as published by International Lyrics Playground:

Evenin’ breezes sighin’, moon is in the sky
Little man, it’s time for bed
Daddy’s little hero is tired and wants to cry
Now, come along and rest your weary head

Little man, you’re cryin’, I know why you’re blue
Someone took your kiddy-car away
You better go to sleep now
Little man, you’ve had a busy day

Johnny won your marbles, tell you what we’ll do
Dad’ll get you new ones right away
Better go to sleep now
Little man, you’ve had a busy day

You’ve been playin’ soldier, the battle has been won
The enemy is out of sight
Come along there soldier, put away your gun
The war is over for tonight

Time to stop your schemin’, time your day was through
Can’t you hear the bugle softly say
Time you should be dreamin’
Little man, you’ve had a busy day

The instantaneous popularity of the song was annoying to some—as illustrated by the following from the fictional interview of “Joe Goop, gentleman safecracker”, allegedly imprisoned at Kingston Penitentiary, in the column Starbeams, by R. M. H., published in The Border Cities Star (Windsor, Ontario) of Thursday 28th June 1934:

“And the radio!” says Joe. “Every evening, when they bring me in from the rock pile, I switch on the radio in my cell, but all I can get is ‘Little Man, You’ve Had a Busy Day.’ They’re telling me!”

In her column Orchids and Onions, published in the Woodland Daily Democrat (Woodland, California) of Friday 29th June 1934, Florence W. McGehee also complained about this intrusiveness:

Today’s Best Hates
Little Man, You’ve Had a Busy Day”; the fellow who wrote it and everybody who sings and plays it, ad infinitum, ad nauseum.

A parody of the song occurs in the column Square Shootin’, by S. E. Stemle, published in The Jasper Herald (Jasper, Indiana) of Friday 21st September 1934:

Mussolini * Orders Compulsory Military Training for all Italian Boys Over Eight.—Headline.

Little Man, you’re crying
I know why you’re blue—
Someone shot your lower lip away.
Better go to sleep now,
Little Man, you’ve had a busy day.

You must hate the Germans,
Austrians and Poles,
So you’ll feel just right to maim and slay.
Better crawl to bed now—
Little Man you’ve had a busy day.

You’ve been loading cannon
And tramping in the sun,
The way your feet hurt is a fright.
Run along now, Soldier, put away your gun,
The war is over for tonight.

Time to stop your dreaming
Of a lasting peace:
Can’t you hear Il Duce loudly say:
“Time we started something!”
Little Man, you’ve had a busy day.

(* The Italian Fascist politician Benito Mussolini (1883-1945), known as Il Duce (the Leader), was the Prime Minister of Italy from 1922 to 1943.)

Very early, little man, you’ve had a busy day came to be used as a phrase. The earliest occurrence that I have found is from Many Mothers at Father-Son Event: ‘Little Caruso’ Features Polish-Canadian Club Banquet, published in The Border Cities Star (Windsor, Ontario) of Monday 11th June 1934:

Stephen, a handsome little fellow, whose hands are constantly signalling to his little playmates in the audience, is possessed of a remarkable voice which he knows how to use. Singing English and Polish songs, he quite captivated his audience. Mayor Croll, on behalf of the Border Cities Polish-Canadian Club, which sponsored the banquet for the benefit of its sick members, presented the lad with a loving cup and the remark, “Little man—you’ve had a busy day.”

Two lines of the song are used as a phrase in an International News Service item published on Tuesday 19th June 1934 in several U.S. newspapers—for example in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram (Fort Worth, Texas):

New York, June 19.—Heavyweight Champion Max Baer took his girl out Monday night and had a glorious time.
She was tall, she was sweet. And she had a fine time.
But before she left the champion, she said:
Better go to sleep now, little man, you’ve had a busy day.
Maxie laughed and said:
“Isn’t she marvelous?”
He’s said that before and many, many times, but the sincerity behind it this time was something that made the girl smile proudly.
Need any more to be said? You guessed it. It was his mother, here from Denver.

The phrase occurs in this advertisement for Grand Storage Warehouse, 444 W. Willis, published in The Detroit Free Press (Detroit, Michigan) of Sunday 1st July 1934:

'little man, you've had a busy day' - The Detroit Free Press (Detroit, Michigan) - 1 July 1934

Little Man, You’ve Had a Busy Day!
Shopping for a Car
But That’s Not Necessary!
Come to 444 W. WILLIS
More Than 200 Automobiles
Must Be Sold. Must Have Room for
Incoming Storage

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