Gloating over them apples

In an advertising poster, for actual apples:


and on a tongue-in-cheek sticker, reproducing a gloat:


Both incorporate phonological reductions of casual speech — ’bout for about, d’ya  ([djǝ] or [ǰǝ]) for do you — and also one feature of “demotic American” (a collection of linguistic features widespread in working class speech): determiner them (in place of standard those). But even without the phonological reductions we’re left with two formulaic expressions —

How about them apples? What do you think about them apples?

that are available for English speakers in general (not just working class speakers), not as opinion-seeking questions like

How about those apples? What do you think about those apples?

but as conveying one or the other of two types of gloats (directed by the speaker against the addressee).

Assembled from material on the Free Dictionary site, on the idiomatic expressions How do you / d’ya like them apples? and How about / ’bout them apples?

(a) A phrase used to draw attention to one’s cleverness or superiority to the one being addressed, especially after a recent triumph. You remember how you said I would never get into law school? Well now I’m valedictorian. How do you like them apples? [similarly, What do you think about them apples?]

(b) Used after telling somebody an unpleasant fact or truth, to say that they should accept it: Either you deliver the dresses for the price we agreed on, or I’m going to go someplace else. How do you like them apples? [similarly, What do you think about them apples?]

From NOAD:

verb gloat: [no object] contemplate or dwell on one’s own success or another’s misfortune with smugness or malignant pleasure.

noun gloat: [in singular] informal an act of gloating.

Ordinary opinion-seeking wh questions can be pressed into service as indirect gloats — How about that? What do you think about that?, or How do you feel about that?, What are you going to do about that?, and so on. But with the idiomatic direct object apples in combination with the determiner them instead of those, the expressions can be imported from working class speech (where they’re ambiguous between opinion-seeking questions about apples, on the one hand, and gloats, on the other) as a kind of quotation in standard speech, interpretable there only as gloats. That’s the way they work for me.

Use (a) is straightforwardly gloating. Use (b) is somewhat more complex: the speaker presents the addressee with some observation the addressee will find unpleasant and then rubs it in, insisting that the addressee accept it. Conventionalized Schadenfreude.

History of the two gloats. This seems to be quite murky, and tracking phrase origins and histories is not my thing, so for the moment, this 10/27/08 posting from the Phrase Finder site is the best I can dredge up:

[query from reader:] Does anyone know the origin of the phrase “how do you like them apples?”. I saw (or rather heard) the phrase in the movie ‘Good Will Hunting’ and while I understood the sentiment that was conveyed, the actual meaning eluded me…

(#3) Clip from Good Will Hunting

[Phrase Finder response:] I cannot find an authoritative source, but various sites on the web have it that the original “apple” was a mortar-fired bomb used during WW I…

The 1959 Howard Hawks film “Rio Bravo” is said to have a scene where the character “Stumpy” (played by Walter Brennan) lobs a stick of dynamite and says the phrase in question.

This came up before — also from someone watching Good Will Hunting. All I could find was that the phrase has been used since the 1920s.

[Added 8/7/19: See the comments section for some explorations into the history, in which the catchphrases appear to have their root in them apples being used as a conventional example of grammatical error (because of determiner them).]

Demotic American. Putting aside phenomena of casual speech that are widespread for English speakers generally, there are tons of sociolectal features, features distributed in particular varieties of English according to region, social class, sex, race/ethnicity, age, and so on — and then some features that are widespread for North American working class speakers, tending to run across region and other social factors. A brief inventory of some of these:

negative concord (aka multiple negation): I didn’t see nobody nowhere

specific verb forms: PRS 3 sg don’t (She don’t like it); PRS 1 sg says (So I says to them...); PST seen (I seen them do it), done (She done it); auxiliary verb ain’t

PSP identical to PST: I have ran

anyways for standard anyway

pronouns: determiner them (for deictic those); AccConjSubj (Him and me went together)

A working class speaker won’t necessarily have all of these, but there’s a strong tendency for them to co-occur.


6 Responses to “Gloating over them apples”

  1. Sim Aberson Says:

    How do you like them egg rolls, Mr. Goldstone?

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    The hounds of ADS-L have risen to the occasion; on the mailing list today, first from John Baker, then from Peter Reitan.

    [John Baker:] Arnold Zwicky has a discussion of this rhetorical question [AZ note: a very specific type of rhetorical question, as I observed in my posting] on his blog today… , 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 —

    — 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 [AZ: the error lying in the determiner them]. 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. [AZ: the toffee-apple idea probably arose from an amateur word sleuth’s casting about for some — any — specialized or dialectal use of “apple” to attach the catchphrase to.]

    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

    — 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.

    [Peter Reitan:] I have a post about the expression on my blog.

    I added the 1895 reference in an update to that post in 2016 (towards the end of the post).

    “Them apples” was frequently used as an example of a common grammar mistake in English textbooks for nearly a century before the full expression became popular during WWI.

  3. arnold zwicky Says:

    Another comment from Peter Reitan on ADS-L on 8/6:

    Precursor (?), 1893, “how’s them for apples?”

    Found in one story which appeared in two newspapers in 1893.

    First appeared in Chicago Inter-Ocean in a story about someone from Washington state bragging about how great things are out west. At one point, the Washingtonian says. “Look at that chunk of coal – 25 tons. How’s them for apples? Say, did you ever see such potatoes? Bushel in a hill.” — Chicago Inter-Ocean, June 17, 1893, page 6. Yakima Herald, June 23, 1893, page 2.

    It may be ambiguous. Does “how’s them for apples” refer back to the large chunk of coal? Or is it a separate boast about Washington apples, as is the following boast about potatoes?

    I read it as more likely similar to “how ’bout them apples?”

    An illustration of the difficulties in interpreting material when you don’t have the context of the times, when you don’t know what experiences and attitudes readers might have brought to the texts.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      A significant observation on PR’s posting from Larry Horn on ADS-L on 8/7:

      It would be nice to have a recording. The intonation for idiomatic “them apples” always (I believe) anaphorically de-stresses “apples” (with primary stress here retracted to “(a)bout” or “them”), whereas if the Washingtonian was boasting about their state’s apples, there would be no de-stressing.

      Edison invented the phonograph in 1877, but, alas, it’s massively unlikely that any relevant early examples of “them apples” got recorded, much less this specific one.

      • arnold zwicky Says:

        And now (8/7) a reconsideration by PR:

        Looking at it closer, I think I now lean toward it being a separate boast about Washington apples, not a precursor to “how do you like them apples?”

        The story takes place in the Washington Building of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. A man from Indiana insults a man from Washington by suggesting that it “rains potty nigh all the time in Washington, don’t it?”

        In response, the man from Washington invites him inside the Washington Building to show him a large diorama or model of a Washington State illustrating many of the great things there. The man from Washington is narrating as they look across the model, “Look at that chunk of coal – 25 tons. How’s them for apples? Say did you ever see such potatoes? Bushel in a hill” – and the two strolled out of earshot.”

        So it seems like a typical example of the well-known incorrect construction, but not necessarily a direct precursor to the later expression.

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