X much

« previous post | next post »

A couple of days ago, Language Hat hosted an interesting discussion of the "X much?" construction:

I have been asked about the history of the construction "X much?" as a rhetorical response (e.g., "Bitter much? Overanalzye much? Ad hominem much?").

He discovered that the OED has a new subentry that exactly covers it:

colloq. (orig. U.S., freq. ironic). With a preceding adjective, infinitive verb, or noun phrase, forming an elliptical comment or question.
The use was popularized by the film Buffy, the Vampire Slayer and the television series derived from it.
1988 D. Waters Heathers (film script) 15 God Veronica, drool much? His name's Jason Dean.
1988 D. Waters Heathers (film script) 86 Heather Duke. It was J.D.'s idea! He made out the signature sheet and everything. Now will you sign it. Veronica. (queasy) No. Heather Duke. Jealous much?
1992 J. Whedon Buffy the Vampire Slayer (film script) 8 A stranger, walking the other way, bumps into Buffy, doesn't stop.‥ Buffy. Excuse much! Not rude or anything.
1992 J. Whedon Buffy the Vampire Slayer (film script) 25 Pike and Benny have entered the diner, quite drunk.‥ Kimberly (to the other girls) Smell of booze much.
1998 M. Burgess & R. Green Isabella in Sopranos (television shooting script) 1st Ser. 1 42 Anthony Jr. Probably I can't go to that dance now either. Meadow. God, self-involved much?
2001 Cosmopolitan Dec. 178 You've seen them: the kinds of couples who finish each other's sentences.‥ Jealous much? Damn right.

The discussion seems to have left out one observation about the relevant background sense of much (perhaps because it's obvious), namely that it's become a polarity item. At some point, things like "It matters much" became archaic:

I don't like him much Do you like him much? *I like him much
You don't sleep much Do you sleep much? *You sleep much
It doesn't matter much Does it matter much? *It matters much
It doesn't cost much Does it cost much? *It costs much
He isn't hurt much Is he hurt much? *He's hurt much
She isn't there much Is she there much? *She's there much

Combined with the general tendency to omit more-or-less redundant beginnings of questions, this gives a fairly common and unremarkable old-fashioned version of X much, simply by leaving out the initial auxiliary and pronoun:

Bronson Howard, Kate, 1886:

"Lose much?"
"Ten thousand."

"Recollections of an aristocrat (By 'Old calabar')", Baily's Magazine of Sports and Pastimes, 1874:

"Blessed if it ain't Captain Swellington! Here, John, jump down. Hurt much, sir?"

The innovation, as the OED implies and various of hat's commenters note more explicitly, is to generalize X much to instantiations of X that would not normally take the polarity-item much as an intensifying adjunct, at least not in the same meaning. Thus

"Are you jealous much?"

is grammatical, but would traditionally mean something like "Are you often jealous?". In contrast, "jealous much?" seems to be essentially just a cute idiomatic version of the rhetorical question "jealous?"

And things like "Ad hominem much?" or "Martyr much?" are harder to relate to a full question, though perhaps "Are you being (a) ___ ?" would apply with some degree of awkwardness.

On the other hand, in some non-standard varieties of (American?) English, the boundaries of much as a polarity intensifier seem to be somewhat wider. Thus "How Pickles joined his uncle", NYT 7/21/1895:

After a little their grub was get ready in the camp-house an' Bill and Pickles walks over side an' side. They goes in an' shuts the door an' in about five minutes bang! bang! goes two six-shooters an' we all gone over an' finds Bill eatin' away all right an' Pickles over the other side with his head in his tin plate an' his brains runnin' out over his left eye.

"It don't look like Pickles was hungry much, after all," says Bill.


  1. Lance said,

    December 11, 2010 @ 7:29 am

    In contrast, "jealous much?" seems to be essentially just a cute idiomatic version of the rhetorical question "jealous?"

    It's not quite that, though. That works for "jealous" and other adjectives, because you can turn to someone who's openly coveting something and ask, "Jealous?" rhetorically (short, perhaps, for "Are you jealous?" to mean "I see that you're jealous"). But that doesn't work for verbs, like "drool much?" or an example that sprang to mind from Buffy the series, "Overidentify much?" Unlike with the adjective, you can't turn to someone and ask, rhetorically, "Drool?" or "Overidentify?" (short for, I suppose, "Do you drool?" or the like).

    Instead, I think you have to read these not as idiomatic variations on other rhetorical questions but rather as their own idiomatic questions: "[Are you] jealous much? [Apparently yes, given that you're jealous now]", or "[Do you] drool much? [Apparently yes, given that you're drooling now]".

    Incidentally, I'm also puzzled by the OED's addition of "noun phrase": none of their examples are noun phrases (well, "drool" could be, but I don't think it is here), and it strikes me as ungrammatical to roll your eyes at someone offering a syntactic analysis and ask, "Geez, linguist much?" (Maybe "Geez, a linguist much?", but I'm not sure.) Of course, given the interpretation of "much" as a frequency adverb rather than a degree adverb (I think it's being used as in "Do you comment here much", i.e. often, as opposed to "Did you comment much," i.e. at length), it wouldn't be compatible with an individual-level predicate. (Again, maybe; I have no trouble imagining Cordelia Chase encountering a demon and saying, "Whoa. Ugly much?".)

  2. Margaret L said,

    December 11, 2010 @ 8:07 am

    Wow, I just totally scanted out on "much."

  3. Ben Zimmer said,

    December 11, 2010 @ 8:28 am

    In an update, Languagehat links to Kevin Sullivan's Language and Humor blog, which contains a 1978 example of "ADJ much?" (antedating "Heathers" by a decade).

    On SNL's October 7, 1978, episode (Season 4, Episode 1), with The Rolling Stones as host, the teen nerds Lisa Loopner (Gilda Radner; Safire spelled it "Lupner") and Todd (Bill Murray) are hanging out in Lisa's kitchen:

    TODD: I really need your help with my history homework.
    LISA: Well, Todd, you know if you sincerely need my help, you can count on it.
    TODD: Oh, good. Because I'm studying all about [grabs at Lisa's shirt neck and tries to peek down her shirt] underdeveloped nations!
    LISA (shouting and smiling): Cut it out, Todd! Cut it out! [lightly swats him away] Stop it!
    TODD (points at Lisa's chest and mock laughs to a pretend audience): Underdeveloped much?
    (Nerds Broken Fridge, 02:37-02:55)

  4. Ellen K. said,

    December 11, 2010 @ 8:39 am

    There's one example in the post with a noun, "Martyr much?". I understand that, though, as a verbing, so it's grammatically, within the expression, a verb, not a noun. Same with "Ad hominem". Although I think that's more common as an adjective, here, I think it's a noun that's being verbed.

  5. GeorgeW said,

    December 11, 2010 @ 9:16 am

    A couple of observations.

    The 'much' polarity may be the opposite of ‘a lot.’
    1. ? I like him much
    2. I don't like him much
    3. I like him a lot
    4. ? I don't like him a lot

    The declarative 'much' above is improved with a modifier:
    5. ? I like him much
    6. I like him very much
    7. I like him too much

  6. Ben Zimmer said,

    December 11, 2010 @ 9:36 am

    Lance: In Slayer Slang, Michael Adams provides many examples of "NP much?" from the Buffy-verse (see pp. 76-77 on Google Books). The earliest example he cites is from the Dec. 1998 issue of Mademoiselle: "Meanwhile, My Best Friend's Wedding/Friends much?"

  7. sjt said,

    December 11, 2010 @ 10:04 am

    "Are you jealous much?" is grammatical, but would traditionally mean something like "Are you often jealous?". In contrast, "jealous much?" seems to be essentially just a cute idiomatic version of the rhetorical question "jealous?"

    You seem to say here that "Jealous much?" cannot mean "Are you often jealous?", which surprises me because I've always interpreted "X much?" in this way. Is there reason to reject this interpretation?

    (It goes with the implicature suggested above by Lance, which I would paraphrase as "I am surprised to see you Xing now, so I wonder whether it is a habit." In uses such as Cordelia's "morbid much?", cited in the hat's thread, I understand that subtext itself to be deliberately performed — Cordelia does not actually wonder whether Buffy has a habit of being morbid, but pretends that Buffy's morbidness is so unusual as to provoke that response, and the subsubtext is then just that Cordelia objects to Buffy's present morbidness.)

  8. Azimuth said,

    December 11, 2010 @ 11:08 am

    Buffy-type "X much" strikes me as STP (snarky teen pidgin). Same for the SNL usage. You can't overanalyze it. That is, you really shouldn't. Yeah, you can't. You *can't* overanalyze it… you can't overanalyze it… You… you… you know what I mean.

  9. least_terrible said,

    December 11, 2010 @ 11:17 am

    I think that the key difference between "jealous much?" and "are you jealous" lies in the fact that the latter implies that the asker lacks information (and is requesting it), while the former implies that the askee lacks the information. The person who asks "jealous much?" is, in fact, making a statement: "You are SO MUCH immersed in jealousy that you cannot even see it." Or else, the true rhetorical question is "How can you be so immersed in jealousy you can't even see it." The snark-factor comes in due to the fact that the "X much" construction kind of "belongs" to the youthful and the flaky ("How can you NOT see this about yourself, when even I, a total flake, can?"), and thus the use of this construction is funniest when used with a fairly adult-sounding X ("Overidentify much?).

  10. least_terrible said,

    December 11, 2010 @ 11:25 am

    Apologies for the abundance of punctuation mistakes above. I was on a roll.

  11. Randy Hudson said,

    December 11, 2010 @ 11:35 am

    sjt, 'much' as intensifier rather than frequentative seems much more obvious to me. I'd paraphrase the OED examples as
    Does he make you drool that much?
    Are you that/so/very jealous?
    They really smell of booze.
    Are you that/so self-involved?

    The Whedon 'Excuse much' is harder to paraphrase, but since it's described as encounter with a stranger, it's hard to see a frequentative reading.

  12. Terry Collmann said,

    December 11, 2010 @ 11:46 am

    It looks to me as if "much" has muscled in on the territory formerly held (in BrE at least) by "or what?". All the "X much?" uses that seem to be causing people problems, such as "Overidentify much?", "Martyr much?", "ad hominem much?", "morbid much?" and "jealous much?" appear to work perfectly well with "or what?" substituted for "much?"

    The question being idiomatically expressed by both "or what?" and "much" is: "Is this not a case of excessive [the quality associated with the noun X]?" It is thus, I suggest, the excessivity that is being expressed by the use of "much", so that, for example, Cordelia is not objecting to Buffy's present morbidness but her apparently excessive morbidness, and "jealous much?" means "are you not being excessively jealous?"

  13. John said,

    December 11, 2010 @ 11:52 am

    Whedon is known, esp. in BTVS, for pushing the language a bit, even making up his own constructions.

    A favorite: Giles tells Buffy that X is pointless and B replies that it's "totally pointy." That's pure Whedon, not some reflection of current teen slang that he heard.

    So I wouldn't put much stock in examples from his oevre, except as evidence of an existing paradigm he's manipulating.

    I'd have thought the expression evolved from the elliptical "[Does it] hurt much?" through some kind of re-construed "[Are you] hurt much?" to " much?" with a soupçon of hip youngster speak. To me, it's an attempt to point out what is obvious to the speaker (and perhaps to the addressee) and is also worthy of some mockery.

    As for this thread (or maybe blog?)…overanalyze much?

  14. Rick S said,

    December 11, 2010 @ 12:22 pm

    least_terrible gets closest to my reading of this meme. "X much" seems more like an accusation than a question. If there's an underlying question, it might be "Don't you get how uncool it is to X so much?"

  15. Craig said,

    December 11, 2010 @ 1:03 pm

    I concur with Rick S and least_terrible, "X much" unpacks to something along the lines of "Let me draw your attention to the fact that you are being insanely, embarrassingly X."

  16. JMM said,

    December 11, 2010 @ 1:09 pm

    It seems to me that there are two things going on here.

    The use of "Much" to me "Very" is quite old (as shown by the quote from the "Pickles" story.), though it is inverted. So "Hungry much?" = "Very hungry"; Jealous much? = Very jealous? And Bill Murry's use in 1978 (which I probably saw when it aired) would not be a surprise at all, at least not to me with an East Texas and Arkansas background.

    The use with verbs is different but not newer, is it? As MYL began, it is simply the dropping of "Do you" at the beginning of the question?

    Some of the stranger examples are verbing nouns. To ad hominem is to use such arguments; and to martyr is to act like one is being martyred (not the real verb sense.).

    There is a tendency to deny any diglossia in English, to attribute all forms like this to the young or minority groups or regionalisms or whatever. But I don't believe that is true. One of the mods on Metafilter compiled a use of this form on the site (http://metatalk.metafilter.com/20088/Datawank-much). It is used a lot, and my impression of the commenters there (unlike most aggregator and question sites) is that few are underaged or undereducated. Speak informally much?

  17. Rick S said,

    December 11, 2010 @ 1:12 pm

    On reconsideration, I realize that my mind was in too narrow a frame in my previous comment. I have, I recall, used "Walk much?" to tease a friend after he tripped and stumbled over a sidewalk irregularity. (Note that in this usage, the X denotes what the addressee didn't do or do well, which is different from previous examples.) So it's not always accusatory, but I still think it suggests habitual uncoolness.

  18. Meghan Armstrong said,

    December 11, 2010 @ 1:26 pm

    We'll be talking about this at the LSA meeting in a few weeks. (Armstrong, Carmichael & Schwenter: X much? constructions and the contextual licensing of scale inversion) Since I couldn't find a link to the abstracts on the LSA site, I'm including the abstract below to give an idea of how we've been thinking about all this.

    X much? constructions and the contextual licensing of scale inversion

    In this paper, we analyze two related constructions which we represent as X much?. Canonical X much? (CXM) features a semantically negative adjective (1), noun (2), or verb (3) in the X slot. The value of X is high relative to a contextually-salient scalar norm of X, with a resulting implicature of a critical evaluation about a recently completed action. The “X” in X much? is elliptical in that one word (adjective, noun or verb) + the quantifier much express a full proposition; thus, the underlined phrase in (1) asserts, “you are very jealous.” The propositional content is clarified by the context, cf. (2) and (3). Inverted X much? (IXM) features a semantically neutral verb in the X slot, e.g. knock in (4), with a similar implicature as CXM–a critical evaluation–but the value of X is LOW relative to a contextually-salient scalar norm of X, e.g. in (4) that Lexie did not knock before entering the bathroom.

    (1) Teenager pulls up to a crowded party in an expensive car.

    Teenager: yo, jealous much?

    (2) Buffy has just apologized to Dawn for the umpteenth time.

    Dawn: Broken record much?

    (3) Veronica and the Heathers are sitting in the cafeteria; Veronica is ogling a boy nearby.

    Heather: God, Veronica, drool much?

    (4) Lexie has just entered the bathroom without knocking, walking in on Callie in the shower.

    Callie: ahem, knock much?

    The licensing conditions for CXM are the following: (i) Previous context (linguistic or otherwise) provides evidence for some person or thing being/doing X; (ii) X has just been activated due to a recent action; (iii) X is a semantically negative and/or socially inappropriate quality/action.
    In contrast, the licensing conditions for IXM resemble the conditions for other inverted interpretations of operators (Amaral and Schwenter 2009): (i) The linguistic context entails a set of propositions ordered by pragmatic entailment (cf. Fauconnier 1975) in a contextually determined scale; (ii) There is a proposition accessible in the context, the context proposition or cp (cf. Kay 1990), which is part of the common ground of speaker and hearer at the time of utterance; (iii) The proposition expressed by X much?, the text proposition, pragmatically entails the negation of cp (the assertion linked to the verb that fills the X slot).

    IXM only allows verbs in the X slot, while CXM also allows nouns and adjectives. We propose that this restriction is due to the fact that IXM does not allow stative interpretations, though they are permitted for CXM, e.g. “You are jealous” (1) and “You are a broken record” (2). Since both adjectives and nouns result in stative interpretions, neither are possible for IXM, and stative verbs are not either.

    Our findings build on past research on X much? (Adams 2003), while also adding to the growing literature on scalar operators with both canonical and “inverted” readings (cf. Amaral 2007; Horn 2002, 2008; Schwenter 2002). Specifically, we show that inverted interpretations are contextually determined in ways that canonical ones are not.

  19. Colin M said,

    December 11, 2010 @ 1:48 pm

    Maybe this is a phenomenon quite apart from what's under discussion, but I remember 10-15 years ago, friends of mine using "VP much?" after someone had botched something, with the "much" having the frequentative sense. For example, if someone tripped, they would get a sarcastic "Walk much?".

  20. Spell Me Jeff said,

    December 11, 2010 @ 2:17 pm

    I suspect there is more here than meets the eye. It is a very small leap from "Do you walk much?" to "Walk much?" Eliding "do" constructions is what we do.

    It is a more drastic leap from "Are you hungry much?" to "Hungry much?"

    This is true, at least partly, because the first expression is only quasi-idiomatic. I personally would say, depending on the intent, "Are you very hungry?" or "Are you often hungry" or even "I guess you've never been hungry before."

    So I am assuming that "Hungry much?" and its ilk are not an "Are you" elision analogous to a "do you" elision.

    Seems to me–what may be obvious at first–that "Hungry much?" is, without mediation, analogous to "Walk much?"

    If this is the case, is it out of the question to parse the phrase as if the adjective has in fact been verbed? This is not so obvious, but it is I think consistent. A back formation (if such should ever evolve) might sound like this: "Do you hungry much?" Not so idiomatic but easily understood. Cf:

    "Jealous much?"
    "Please! Cheerleaders don't jealous. They avenge."

    "Nasty much?"
    "I'll nasty you as much as I damned well please."

    I have not actually heard these constructions. But they come to mind with very little effort.

  21. Josh Millard said,

    December 11, 2010 @ 2:42 pm

    One of the mods on Metafilter compiled a use of this form on the site

    Oh hi!

    It is used a lot, and my impression of the commenters there (unlike most aggregator and question sites) is that few are underaged or undereducated. Speak informally much?

    Which is an interesting and sort of tricky question. I agree with your characterization: folks on mefi are generally reasonably literate and the bulk of the userbase is in the 20-40 range; we get a few precocious teenagers but mostly it seems like folks of college age on up and many if not most of them seem to be better read than I am.

    But there's also a lot of Whedon fans on the site and more generally pop culture fans (and overthinkers), so the question of direct influence from viewership of Buffy (either as it aired or after the fact) comes into it: does education or age come into it much if there's a common cultural influence that doesn't necessarily bind to education or age, for example.

    One thing I didn't do in my hunt for the much? form was look at the users responsible for the various cites, and I may go back and do that at some point because it'd be interesting to see if there's any obvious biases in the distribution of the usage. Are they mostly younger users? Is there a gender bias? Are they attested Buffy/Whedon (or Heathers) fans? Are they folks on the site who are rhetorically aggressive in general, or on the flip side is the use of this particular device exceptional for their usual approach to argument?

  22. Abe said,

    December 11, 2010 @ 4:50 pm

    There was a great exchange on an episode of Community a couple months ago:

    Annie: bitter much?
    Britta: say 'bitter much', much?
    Annie: say "say 'bitter much' much" … much?

  23. Rubrick said,

    December 11, 2010 @ 5:32 pm

    I can't believe you guys are wasting time on this trivial issue. Ado about nothing much?

  24. Lance said,

    December 11, 2010 @ 10:51 pm

    (4) Lexie has just entered the bathroom without knocking, walking in on Callie in the shower.

    Callie: ahem, knock much?

    Oh, so you're taking a Lexie-Callie Functional approach.

  25. Matt Pearson said,

    December 12, 2010 @ 4:10 am

    Lance: Pun much?

  26. Joe said,

    December 12, 2010 @ 5:40 am

    @Meghan Armstrong,

    Thanks for the abstract. It sounds like an interesting paper. I think the IXM construction (knock much?) would be the equivalent of "Don't you knock?" The CXM construction (jealous much?) doesn't really have an equivalent, because neither Are you jealous? nor Are you often jealous? really capture it.

    I'm wondering, though, whether the negative evaluation of the IXM construction is based on the negation of a "serial state," along the lines of "You don't knock much, do you?"

  27. Joe said,

    December 12, 2010 @ 7:35 am

    Sorry for the double post, but I was thinking that the "jealous much?" construction might be understood as something like, "do you get jealous much, because you sure are now, aren't you?"

  28. baylink said,

    December 12, 2010 @ 9:27 am

    In my experience, the WXM (Whedonesque X Much) is nearly always, rather specifically) a verbed NP, and one not commonly verbed; that's where most of the Jossness comes from.

  29. Megs said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 11:33 am

    I read it more as a shortened and more caustic form of "Are you much jealous?" "Are you overidentifying a little much?"

    [(myl) This idea would be more plausible if "Are you much jealous?" were an idiomatic expression in English, which (at least for me) it isn't.]

  30. Megs said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 5:09 pm

    No. Very is used in the vernacular. But it is a GRAMMATICAL statement, just one that would never be used casually. Many idioms don't come from idioms and I never interpreted the "Jealous much?" idiom as coming from another idiom but coming from a nonidiom ill-suited for the kind of conversation "Jealous much?" would appear in.

  31. Jahi Chappell said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 7:24 pm

    I'm not a linguist, and so I'm having trouble fully deciphering all the explanations and explications here, but none of them seem to *quite* hit on my interpretation. Meghan Armstrong @1:26pm seems to come closest, though I can't entirely follow it.

    But it seems to me there are two underlying implications from the "X much?" phrase, at least as used in the Whedonverse. One is a rhetorical and snarky assertion of a trait or habit: "Jealous much?"; "Overidentify much?" "Rude Much?" –> rephraseable as a rhetorical "Are in the habit of being jealous/overidentifying/being rude?" (or the more established rhetorical "Are you ALWAYS this rude/jealous/empathetic?"), asserting with varying degrees of strength (depending on user and context) "You are indeed too jealous/empathetic/etc."

    The other use can be rephrased similarly, but is used ironically to imply a lack of the usual observed characteristic/behavior. "Excuse much?" is helpful for this one — "Are you in the habit of [bumping into people without saying] 'Excuse' [me] much?" You could think of a generalization of this one for various simliar occasions — "Polite much?" — "Are you often/always this [im]polite?"

    I guess there's actually a third usage I detect, though I lack the language to classify it. As in the "Walk much?" or, I've heard, when someone is struck with some temporary disfluency, "Talk much?" The literal rephrasing could be "Are you in the habit of talking?", with the snarky/ironic implication, "[Given that one is likely indeed in the habit of walking and talking] You're not very good at [X], given that you do it often." I could see this being used in a group of friends who, say, bowl every week, but one is having a very bad game. The person who usually scores in the 200s getting repeated gutterballs could be asked "Bowl much?" with this meaning.

    I have no idea how to classify these three uses technically, or if they're even technically distinct, nor do I know if it jibes with others' impressions, but these implied meanings are the ones the appear obvious to me, at least.

  32. Megs said,

    December 14, 2010 @ 11:13 am

    I think what I was trying to say is I've never heard this phrase to really use "much" as often. I've heard it used as a quantifier, much.

    So instead of a snarky "Jealous often?" I hear a rephrased "Much jealous?" which sounds a whole lot better and snarkier with the much on the end.

  33. Coleman Glenn said,

    December 21, 2010 @ 12:13 pm

    I'm a little late to the conversation, but as a few others have said, I think a lot of the apparent adjectives and nouns are actually verbs. In fact, I ALWAYS hear the phrase this way, e.g. I hear "jealous much?" as "Do you jealous much?" I think part of what makes the phrase funny (or did when it was fresher) was that it verbed seemingly unverbable adjevtives and nouns. My impression is also that it's a direct offspring / play on "walk much" (and possibly "talk much," as Jahi mentioned), even though the meaning is actually different ("walk much" mocking someone for failing to do something that should be routine, "jealous much." "ad hominem much," etc., mocking someone for doing the thing named).

  34. Just another Peter said,

    December 31, 2010 @ 7:45 pm

    There's also an episode of Terminator: the Sarah Conner Chronicles with this exchange:

    Zoey: Does this make me look fat?
    Cameron Phillips: Yes.
    Zoey: What the hell? What's your problem?
    Cameron Phillips: You asked…
    Franny: Bitch whore much?
    Cameron Phillips: I don't understand.
    Franny: I said: bitch… whore… much? What are you looking at?
    Cameron Phillips: I am looking at YOU.

  35. Vampire Vords (And Accents) | Wordnik ~ all the words said,

    October 17, 2011 @ 9:45 am

    […] slayage). For even more on slayer slang, check out these posts from Language Hat (“Much?”) and Language Log (“X […]

RSS feed for comments on this post