"How ADJ is that?" (1970)

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU
Mon Feb 20 05:29:46 UTC 2006

On 2/20/06, Benjamin Zimmer <bgzimmer at ling.upenn.edu> wrote:
> 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.
> http://groups.google.com/group/alt.usage.english/browse_frm/thread/b9aa704c07e978d4/
> 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)
> http://www.amazon.com/gp/reader/0020306652/
> -----

Here's a later example from ballplayer talk:

Los Angeles Times, Aug 22, 1979, p. E2
"He didn't like the way I ran onto the field," says [Dave] Kingman.
"Now, how asinine is that?"
[HNP Doc ID 652276122]

> 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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