[Ads-l] Antedating of "How Do You Like Them Apples?"

Tue Aug 6 22:26:30 UTC 2019

Arnold Zwicky has a discussion of this rhetorical question on his blog today, https://arnoldzwicky.org/2019/08/06/gloating-over-them-apples/, and it reminded me that I had looked at its origin some years ago.  I decided to take another look.

As I posted in 2012, http://listserv.linguistlist.org/pipermail/ads-l/2012-July/120471.html, the origin appears to be a sort of standardized grammar error, which took the form "I like them apples" or "I don't like them apples."  The student was supposed to correct the error.

Some people had supposed that "how do you like them apples?" derives from the use of "toffee apples," a British term for a kind of anti-tank mortar used in World War I.  That's an unlikely theory on its face, since "how do you like them apples?" appears to be American and, as Jonathan Lighter pointed out, there is no evidence of American usage of "toffee apples" during that period.

The OED has the phrase from 1924.  In my 2012 post, I cited an example from 1919, in a company history of World War I.  Here are two earlier examples from Newspapers.com.

>From The Bryan (Tex.) Eagle, Sept. 26, 1895, as part of an article about the many attractive aspects of Bryan:  "Bryan is the best cotton market in this section of the state and has received more cotton than any other town in this section.  How do you like "them apples?""

>From The Ogden (Utah) Standard, July 8, 1918, in a letter from a member of the American expeditionary force, mail service branch:  "As to the war, you probably know more about it over there than we do - and besides, we are not allowed to write very much about it.  It is par bon.  How do you like that French - or, as they say over here, 'How do you like them apples?'"

So the phrase dates at least to 1895, but seems to have become more popular among American soldiers serving in World War I.

John Baker

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

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