Q: John Campbell, a YouTube celebrity offering Covid advice, has said a “vast minority” of young people are not observing social distancing. Although “vast majority” is a common collocation, I had never heard “vast minority” before. Did Campbell invent it, or does it have a history?
A: No, Campbell didn’t coin the phrase “vast minority.” It appeared in writing more than two centuries earlier.
The oldest example we’ve found is from an anonymous 19th-century religious tract ridiculing a writer who had referred to Roman Catholics as “a large portion of the inhabitants” of Ireland:
“you ought to have called the Papists, at once, the vast minority of the inhabitants: you could not gain less credit.” (A Vindication of the Most Rev. John Thomas Troy, D.D., Roman Catholic Archbishop in the Church of Dublin, 1804, by “a Roman Catholic of Dublin.”)
And here’s an example from a letter in the October 1839 issue of the Baltimore Literary and Religious Magazine that uses the expression in reference to Protestants:
“The press in Baltimore, with but few exceptions is a political press, and yet under the guise of preserving the peace of the city, they advocate the cause of the minority; yes a vast minority, a minority of more than three hundredths, for the protestants in wealth and number exceed the sum of the Catholics as a hundred to three.”
In a more recent appearance, the expression describes fans of the singer Mel Tormé: “Carlos Gastel, his longtime manager, told Tormé in 1947, ‘you will never be the mass star you want to be, but there is a vast minority of people out there who will always support your work.’ ”
(From an article by Terry Teachout in Commentary, December 2014. The phrase was also in the title and text of a March 9, 1981, profile of Tormé in the New Yorker.)
The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t have a citation for “vast minority.” The dictionary’s first example of “vast majority” is from the early 18th century:
“The People of the Earth, that is, a vast Majority of Mankind, are represented by Moses, as voluntarily journeying from one part of the Earth to another.” (The Original and Institution of Civil Government, Discuss’d, 1710, by Benjamin Hoadly.)