How Do You Like Them Apples?

Thu Jul 5 17:05:42 UTC 2012

"How do you like them apples?" is a rhetorical question, asking how the listener or supposed listener likes some development that is very good or very bad from the listener's viewpoint.  Its origin is unknown.  HDAS has it, in the form "how do you like them grapes," from 1926.  The leading theory is that it derives from the use of "toffee apples," a kind of anti-tank mortar used in World War I, but the known cites were a little late for World War I.

The question was recently discussed on the Straight Dope Message Board, which has led to more information, based in part on a contribution by SDMB contributor Peter Morris.  "I [don't] like them apples" was a sort of standardized usage error often seen on tests of English grammar.  Examples include the Common Schools of Cincinnati Annual Report 142 (1875) (Google Books); the Denton (Maryland) Journal (July 16, 1881), at 2 (Access Newspaper Archive); and Robert John McLaughlin, Language Notes for Fifth Grade 15 (1904) (HathiTrust).

The earliest use of the phrase is from a company history from the World War I period, History of Company A, 307th Engineer Regiment, 82d Division, United States Army 148 (1919) (Google Books).  "How do you like them apples?" is in the reminiscences section, as one of several standalone humorous quotations.  The cite shows the looked-for link to World War I, but makes no reference to "toffee apples."  The other quotations in this section seem to have more to do with the privations of military life.

A second early example is from the Baltimore and Ohio Magazine (Aug. 1920), at 57 (Google Books), where it is the "moral" of a humorous railroading story told in rhyme (the moral is unrhymed).

I think that there is little doubt that the intentionally ungrammatical usage was meant as a contrast to the older examples in which "I like [or don't like] them apples" was taught as an error.  What is not clear is whether the apples also have some additional signification.

John Baker

The American Dialect Society -

More information about the Ads-l mailing list