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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

what’s not to like?

(1980’s | journalese (arts) | “what’s wrong with that?,” “that doesn’t sound so bad,” “what could go wrong?,” “everything’s cool”)

Except when used ironically, this expression is more or less synonymous with “it’s all good,” but it came along earlier. One can find on-line reports of sightings going back to Dorothy Kilgallen in 1963; my candidate for the earliest use (given the limitations of Google Books it’s hard to be sure) comes from a 1954 play, The Tender Trap, by Max Shulman and Robert Paul Smith. I haven’t found any sign of an earlier citation, though it sounds like something Groucho would have said. It does not seem to have found its footing in cold print until the seventies, when Amtrak used it in an ad campaign. Volkswagen used “What’s Not to Love?,” presumably influenced by Herbie the Love Bug, around the same time in commercials for the Beetle. In the eighties it got settled, most comfortably among actors and athletes (what’s the difference? I know, I know). In recent weeks, it has become almost a reflex to use the phrase in commentary on Facebook’s new “reaction” indicators, intended to give users more nuance than a simple “like” button. On-line language observers often dismiss it as a cliché, but it doesn’t seem terribly ubiquitous. That’s partly because we have so many ways to say the same thing.

It is also quite common for said observers to emphasize growth in the ironic use of “what’s not to like.” Here again, my ear says that’s not so common, though certainly available. My mental image of the phrase is literal and positive. One offers it with a shrug and a goofy smile after listing two or more amenities, benefits, or what have you. If it doesn’t mean “everything’s jake,” it means “there’s nothing wrong with you.” When the boyfriend is afraid the girlfriend’s parents won’t think well of him, she might respond with “What’s not to like? You’ll do fine.” No doubt, the sarcastic face of this rhetorical question shows more often than it did thirty years ago, when such intonation was rare. I’ve noted expressions that started off upbeat turning darker, like “comfort zone,” but “what’s not to like” hasn’t made it that far yet. That’s not to say it won’t.

Phrase Finder correctly identifies “what’s not to like” as reminiscent of Yiddish (maybe Shulman did invent it). Put “so” in front of it and the resemblance only intensifies, and doesn’t it sound suspiciously natural in a Yiddish-American accent? More fancifully, it may be because the question poses an implicit invitation to an argument, which might be counted a characteristically Jewish stance: What’s not to like? Go ahead, just try to find something wrong with it. The irony is there, but more veiled than when some yobbo prefaces a list of horrors with “what’s not to like?” Of course, one can also offer the phrase with a shrug, another gesture characteristic of the Jews, the French, and everyone else. (Full disclosure: I am a goyishe philo-Semite. Or, as lovely Liz prefers, “Semitophile,” on the grounds that “philo-Semite” ought to refer to the sentiment rather than the actor; that is, “love of Jews” rather than “one who loves Jews.”)

A digression on Max Shulman, since I brought him up. If he is remembered at all today, it’s for high-school charmer Dobie Gillis and his beatnik friend Maynard G. Krebs, whose antics could be viewed on Nick at Nite as late as my early adulthood. Shulman was a satirical novelist whose career began in 1943 with Barefoot Boy with Cheek, a fantasia on college life — he was fresh out of the University of Minnesota — and throughout his career he was known as a compiler and chronicler of campus humor. He was a keen observer of American absurdities and a determined social critic. (A World War II veteran, Shulman devoted a couple of novels to our armed forces. A later novel, Anybody Got a Match?, skewered the tobacco industry.) I just found out he wrote the book for the Broadway musical How Now, Dow Jones (1968). His technique could have been more refined, but he used genre parodies and zany wordplay very effectively and was a master at depicting situations spiraling out of control. We remember the Beats, but Shulman belonged to a much different tradition of non-conformism and social criticism. Sort of a Jewish Mark Twain.

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