April 05, 2006

How innovative is that!

One more for the baseball files... The game of baseball has provided many obvious contributions to the English lexicon, particularly via metaphorical extensions to other fields of human endeavor — think of the figurative senses of curveball, home run, in the ballpark, lineup, offbase, out of left field, pinch-hit, and so forth. More subtle are turns of phrase that are not specifically related to baseball but may have first been popularized among ballplayers before spreading to wider usage. I came across one such candidate while reading Jim Bouton's classic 1970 tell-all, Ball Four:

[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]

(The passage is also notable for its revelations about "greenies." Now, 36 years after Bouton exposed the rampant use of pep pills in the sport, Major League Baseball is finally testing for amphetamines as part of its new drug policy.)

Nowadays this usage of "How <Adj> is that!" to mean "That's very <Adj>" is quite widespread in American English. Granted, exclamations introduced by how are nothing new: consider such lines from the King James Bible as "How are the mighty fallen!" (2 Samuel 1:19) or "How great are thy works!" (Psalms 92:5). The Oxford English Dictionary traces this use of how all the way back to Old English and also notes the postwar colloquial formation "How <Adj> can you get?" (The earliest citation listed for that expression is "How unconscious can you get?" from Herman Wouk's 1951 novel The Caine Mutiny, but Leonard and Jane Feathers' composition "How Blue Can You Get?" predates that by about five years.)

Despite these precursors, the construction "How <Adj> is that!" has a particularly modern ring to it. In a discussion on the American Dialect Society mailing list, Larry Horn noted that the expression tends to have a heavy stress on the final word "that," with a falling intonation at the end. This is best represented as "How <Adj> is THAT" (and not at all well represented by "How <Adj> is that?", which implies a rising intonation at the end of the utterance). The turn of phrase became very popular in the 1990s, a trend that a contributor to the newsgroup alt.usage.english attributed to use on "Seinfeld." But Bouton's comment about his teammate Gary Bell's then-idiosyncratic usage suggests it might have been percolating for two decades before its '90s vogue.

The next earliest cite I've found implies that the locution circulated among ballplayers throughout the 1970s:

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?"

By the mid-'80s it had spread to sports columnists, as in this column by the Washington Post's 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?

Kornheiser could very well have picked up the expression from the players he was covering and helped bring it to wider attention. "How cool is that" doesn't start showing up in the Usenet archive until May 1992, and by the following year similar formations could be heard on "Seinfeld":

George: Hey look at this - boy are you lucky - another spot - right in front of the hospital. In an emergency yet! How lucky is that? Is that unbelievable? How unbelievable is that?
("The Bris," Season 5, Episode 5, Oct. 14, 1993)

(For what it's worth, George Costanza didn't begin working for the New York Yankees front office until "The Opposite," which aired on May 19, 1994.)

Even though the two earliest cites I've found so far are quotes from ballplayers, that doesn't mean the innovation originated in baseball usage, of course. In the ADS discussion, Wilson Gray recalled hearing the expressions "How fine is that?" and "How bad is that?" from fellow GI's as far back as 1959. So perhaps "How <Adj> is that!" first circulated in the Army before escaping to baseball by the late '60s. As searchable databases of digitized sources keep expanding, we may well be able to track the expression's early trajectory with some more precision.

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at April 5, 2006 02:26 PM