Million Dollar Question

victor steinbok aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM
Wed May 26 18:09:08 UTC 2010

Very brief, non-analytic follow-up.

The last quarter of the 19th century saw the rise of "the silver
dollar question".

NYT in 1876-78 had a series of articles with a super-hed "The Silver
Dollar Question", dealing with conversion of silver dollars to
"greenbacks", and other issues of gold and silver coinage and the gold
standard. NYT resurrected the headline and general reference to "the
silver dollar question" in 1885 and it appeared occasionally in the
1890s, then was picked up by the Chicago Tribune in two editorials in
1897. There are a few "trade dollar question" references in the
1880s-90s, but nothing in searchable newspapers from 1897 to 1941.

The first actual statement of the appropriate type that is in GNA is
from 1941 (in PQ):

Sept. 1, 1941 Chicago Tribune
"Every time someone asks me a question, I don't reply with, 'Now ask
me the TWO dollar question.'"

A quick scan of GNA hits for 1940-1959 shows the following numbers being used:

64 million

Both numbers and digits appear in the articles, with 64000 getting a
unique hit, and 64, 2 and million dollar references being most common.
Some pick up on the $1-to-$64 pyramid from the radio show and thus are
nearly literal references, but others are metaphorical. Below are a
couple of excerpts that include more than one number, and, as you can
see, there is a mix of literal and metaphorical here too. I have not
done any GB search yet and did not try a systematic search of

> No the maharajah has gone home to answer the $64 dollar question--or rather the $10,000,000 question--himself. [no comma in the original]

> The two-dollar question, the sixty-four dollar question, the question of the hour, the question that stumped John Kieran last Monday--all would indicate a surge of inquisitiveness than cannot but do credit to our generation "How they thirsted for knowledge towards the middle of the 20th century!" our admirers of the future will exclaim. [no period in the original after "generation"]

> "Listening to the radio gives you bad ideas sometimes. I was in a 'spot' the other night where I tried for the two dollar question; then the four dollar; then the eight; then the sixteen; then the thirty-two, and finally the sixty-four dollar question and what do you think happens? Nothing but old 'snakeyes' comes up and blooie goes all my dough!"...


On Wed, May 26, 2010 at 1:33 PM, victor steinbok <aardvark66 at> wrote:
> Has anyone ever analyzed the variations in the "That's an/the X Dollar
> Question"? I just heard a reporter say, "That's a hundred billion
> dollar question", in reference to some NYC board approval or
> disapproval of the downtown Islamic Center. I can unequivocally say
> that this is the /largest/ figure I have ever heard associated with
> the phrase. The inflation of the figures in this phrase does sound a
> lot like the evolution of Dr. Evil ransom demands in Austin Powers.
> VS-)

The American Dialect Society -

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