Q From Hinshaw, Georgia, USA: When we were growing up my father used a curious expression when something happened around our house for which nobody would take the blame. Dad would say, ‘Yehudi did it’. Thus the blame was laid on a phantom scapegoat. Dad’s roots are from North Carolina, but he has no explanation for this expression. The only Yehudi I ever heard of was Menuhin. Where does this expression originate?
A The most common story ties it to the Pepsodent-sponsored Bob Hope radio show on NBC, which started in 1938. There was a running gag on the show, a catchphrase of supporting player Jerry Colonna, who would regularly ask: “Who’s Yehudi?”. This became extremely popular and provoked a song in 1941. (These were simpler days.)
The earliest example in print of Yehudi, in a sense of something that isn’t there, is from the Science News Letter of September 1940: “The machine has not received a nickname as yet. Since it deals with imaginary numbers, it may answer to the name of ‘Yehudi’.” In 1942, a film entitled Crazy Cruise featured an invisible battleship, the SS Yehudi. The following year, one of the very earliest US military stealth projects was called Project Yehudi.
I haven’t been able to find any earlier references, so the word really may have its origin in Jerry Colonna’s catchphrase. If it does, then there may well be a connection with Yehudi Menuhin. The story claims that Menuhin was engaged to play on one of the early shows, but that Jerry Colonna didn’t know who he was, and went around asking the cast. This is supposed to have led to the running gag of his trying to identify Yehudi.
Part of the popularity of Yehudi as a term for an invisible entity may lie in a linkage in people’s minds with a rhyme by Hughes Mearns that was set to music as The Little Man Who Wasn’t There in 1939 — just when the Colonna catchphrase was becoming known:
As I was walking up the stair
I met a man who wasn't there.
He wasn't there again today.
I wish, I wish he'd stay away.