What’s not to like
Posted: 30 January 2008 03:37 PM   [ Ignore ]
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The recency effect had me feeling “what’s not to like?” was a comparatively modern import into Rightpondian English, and one that still hasn’t totally thrown off a transatlantic flavour, until I found it being used apparently unironically by a middle-aged middle class English columnist in The Times (of London) today. A quick Google finds only this discussion of its origins, on the Phrases website, which cites Bob Hope, of all people (who was, of course, born in South-East London) as the first user that could be found in print, and in 1971, when Hope was 69:

The earliest example of it that I’ve found in print is from a piece in The Cumberland Times, July 1971, in which several prominent Americans were asked what they liked about America. Bob Hope’s response included this:

What do I like about America? The torch on the Statue of Liberty has been my Aladdin’s lamp. I rubbed it and have received bounty and blessings beyond anything I could have dreamed or asked for. I cast a few crumbs upon the water and got the whole bakery. What’s not to like?

It sounds like a phrase translated from German. or Yiddish - anyone have any clues as to origins and age?

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Posted: 30 January 2008 06:43 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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I don’t know the origin of the phrase, but it reminds me of an interview with Jerry Seinfeld on the eve of his marriage with the 17 year old bride, Ms. Lonstein. The interviewer, a woman I believe, asked him what it was exactly that he looked for or liked or most prized in a woman. His answer was simple yet pretty cogent, I thought. It went along the lines of, “I like what’s good. A pretty woman, that’s good. If she’s smart, that’s good. A sense of humor is good. Being sophisticated ... that’s also good. Having good taste in clothes is always good. I appreciate it if she likes good food and likes my friends. Those are good things.” It wouldn’t surprise me if he had ended with, “What’s not to like?” What most struck me about his reply was that he mentioned qualities that were not so much elitist but available to most anyone. It was understated brilliance for a guy who at the time was at the peak of his popularity.

Well, too bad the marriage didn’t last.

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Posted: 30 January 2008 07:11 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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It sounds like a phrase translated from German. or Yiddish

FWIW, neither was ist nicht zu lieben nor was ist nicht gern zu haben get any Google hits.

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Posted: 30 January 2008 09:33 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Seinfeld never actually married Ms Lonstein. His only trip up the aisle (thus far) has been with Jessica Sklar, and they’re still happily married, as far as I know.

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Posted: 31 January 2008 08:42 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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To beat a dead horse with the other end of the stick, she was 22 when they broke off the engagement so she wasn’t even close to being a 17-year-old-bride.

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Posted: 31 January 2008 11:34 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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All of that on top of the Seinfeld comment having nothing whatever to do with the topic of the thread.  Well done.

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Posted: 31 January 2008 11:47 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Aha, I found not only a substantial antedate but strong supporting evidence for its being a calque of a Yiddish expression.  From page 109 of Go Fight City Hall by Ethel Rosenberg (Simon and Schuster, 1949):

“You like him,” Mrs. Bender states.
“I like him,” Mrs. Rivkin agrees. “What’s not to like?”

(According to Barry Popik, the book popularized the titular phrase and was copyrighted 1946.)

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Posted: 31 January 2008 01:42 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Thank you for that, LH - very interesting indeed. I see that according to this interesting-looking site, Mrs Rivkin’s surname was Russian Jewish - you’re the man to answer this, any chance she was translating a Russian phrase, or would she and her family only have spoken Yiddish before coming to America?

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Posted: 31 January 2008 03:13 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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She would almost certainly have spoken Yiddish; whether she also spoke Russian would depend on where she had lived and in what circumstances.  It’s not based on a Russian expression in any case.  We’ll have to await a Yiddish specialist to suggest what it might have been based on in that language.

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Posted: 31 January 2008 09:22 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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The whole expression need not be a calque, even assuming that it reflects a German (or Yiddish) influence. The expression may be simply an example (perhaps even a humorous borderline example) of a general pattern “What’s to [verb]?” (meaning “What can/should one [verb]?” or “What is to be [verb]ed?” or “What is there to [verb]?"). Such an “… ist zu ...” pattern is quite ordinary in German (and apparently in Yiddish, which for the purposes of this discussion is essentially German, I think). Rosten gives examples “What’s to lose?”, “What’s to forgive?”, “What’s to regret?” in _Hooray for Yiddish_: he writes the Yiddish as “Vos is tzu ...”.

But then the pattern has long existed in English too, although maybe it’s less prevalent than it once was. “Was ist zu thun?” as used by Goethe seems similar to Shakespeare’s “What’s to do?”, I think.

[ Edited: 31 January 2008 09:39 PM by D Wilson ]
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Posted: 01 February 2008 12:15 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Good point: it couldn’t be a calque in the strict sense because the Yiddish expressions meaning “to like” don’t work the same way, so “pattern imitation” is a better description.

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Posted: 01 February 2008 02:39 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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A Yiddish snowclone.

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Posted: 01 February 2008 05:57 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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A shneykloyn.

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Posted: 01 February 2008 06:20 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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languagehat - 01 February 2008 05:57 PM

A shneykloyn.

very nice!

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