"How ADJ is that?" (1970)

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU
Mon Feb 20 05:10:02 UTC 2006

A few months ago there was a query on the alt.usage.english newsgroup
about the rhetorical question "How ADJ is that?" used to mean "That's
very ADJ." It was pegged as a '90s expression, perhaps popularized by
"Seinfeld" or another TV show.


But here it is from 1970, in a passage from Jim Bouton's _Ball Four_
(also notable for the use of "greenie" = 'pep pill'):

[Gary] Bell is a funny man.... He's got an odd way of talking. Instead
of saying, "Boy, that's funny," he'll wrinkle up his face and say,
"How funny is that?"
Or he'll say, "How fabulous are greenies?" (The answer is very.
Greenies are pep pills -- dextroamphetamine sulfate -- and a lot of
baseball players couldn't function without them.)
(p. 81 of 1990 Wiley edition)

Bouton presents this as idiosyncratic usage, so was it simply
percolating for two decades before its '90s popularization? A cursory
database search finds "How cool is that?" in the relevant sense from
1985, in a column by Washington Post sports columnist Tony Kornheiser:

Washington Post, Oct 11, 1985, p. F1
Fourth and goal from the one. Dynastic Green Bay left with one last
play, trailing, 17-14. The NFL's most celebrated team coached by its
most celebrated man, and the quarterback bops into the huddle taking
requests. Now, how cool is that?

--Ben Zimmer

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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