fun with phrases

Garson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Fri Oct 7 02:35:05 UTC 2011

"What have you done for me lately?"

This is my candidate for a vogue phrase. I was asked about its
"origin" recently, and I did not think that a phrase of this type
would have an origin. But I may have discovered an important locus of

The Google Books Ngram Viewer for the shortened phrase "you done for
me lately" shows a flat line (roughly zero) until the early 1940s and
then a rapid ascent up until the 1970s. There is a dip in the late
1980s and then another ascent.

What happened in the early 1940s? Versions of the joke below were
printed in important periodicals, e.g., the mass circulation Reader's
Digest. The instance given here was published by Bennett Cerf, the
influential quotation and anecdote collector, in his column in the
Saturday Review magazine.

The wide dissemination of this joke might be coincidental, but I
cannot find earlier examples of the cliché catch phrase. The joke is
an elaborate extended "groaner" in my opinion, but the punch line may
have been new to many readers in 1943.

Cite: 1943 March 13, Saturday Review, Trade Winds by Bennett Cerf,
page 13, Column 2, Saturday Review Associates, New York. (Verified on

A TRAVELER for a big publishing house couldn't wait to get to St.
Louis, where his oldest friend owned a prosperous bookstore. "Sam," he
said to the owner the moment they were alone, "I want you to lend me
$2000.00." "The answer, Joe," said Sam, "is positively no." "But,
Sam," protested the salesman, "In 1929, when Bond and Share broke from
189 to 50, who gave you ten thousand dollars to keep you from being
wiped out?" "You did," admitted Sam. "And in 1931, when your daughter
Shirley had that tropical disease, who took her down to Florida
because you couldn't get away from business, who did, Sam?" "You, my
friend, you did."

"And in 1933, when we were fishing together, who dove into the rapids
and saved you from drowning at the risk of his own life?" "You did,
Joe. It was wonderful!" "Well, then, Sam, in Heaven's name, why won't
you lend me $2000.00 now when I need it?" "All the things you say are
true," said Sam, nodding his head slowly, "But what have you done for
me lately?" . . .


On Thu, Oct 6, 2011 at 8:48 PM, Ben Zimmer
<bgzimmer at> wrote:
> ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Ben Zimmer <bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU>
> Subject:      Re: fun with phrases
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> On Thu, Oct 6, 2011 at 7:28 PM, Jonathan Lighter wrote:
>> "Suddenly, the rules had changed."
>> Not usu. "rules" but conditions, common practice, etc. Another dramatic
>> rhetorical cliche'.
>> Nothing in GB before 1991. Nothing in Time archives.
> "Plays by his own rules."
> Virtually nonexistent before the '70s. The Ngram Viewer shows a big
> jump in the '90s.
> --bgz
> --
> Ben Zimmer
> ------------------------------------------------------------
> The American Dialect Society -

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