sixty-four-dollar question?

Discussion in 'English Only' started by WalkintheMoonlight, Oct 6, 2005.

  1. WalkintheMoonlight New Member

    Hello, everybody here!

    I've met a new phrase lately, "sixty-four-dollar question". I know it refers to a very important or key question, but I am at a loss about its origin. Hope you can help me! Thank you in advance!

  2. quickquestion Member

    U.S.A (English)
    This is from Wikipedia:

    The $64,000 Question
    was a popular United States television game show from 1955-1958; The $64,000 Challenge (1956-1958) was its popular spinoff show.

    However, I've heard the use of "the million dollar question" much more often in actual conversation, although I'm sure it must be used in the same way...
  3. panjandrum

    panjandrum Occasional Moderator

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    The 64 thousand dollar question is widely recognised as a standard phrase referring to the key issue, most important question.

    WalkintheMoonlight's source has either mistaken the standard phrase or has been deliberately trivialising a question by referring to it as only a 64 dollar question. This is possible (I have heard it used in this sense) but unlikely:)
  4. foxfirebrand

    foxfirebrand Senior Member

    The Northern Rockies
    Southern AE greatly modified by a 1st-generation Scottish-American mother, and growing up abroad.
    "The sixty-four-dollar question" does exist, and it's just a more modest way of saying the same thing. You'd say that (40+ years ago) when you were talking about a minor or preliminary question, not the crucial end-all type of question.

    In the format of the quiz show, the first question was worth $64 and the winnings escalated from there as the contestant continued to answer correctly-- so you might also use the phrase in reference to the first problem that crops up in the course of a project.
  5. WalkintheMoonlight New Member

    Actually, it's the first time for me to hear of "the 64 thousand dollar question" and "the 64 dollar question". :eek: You know, when I met this phrase of "64-dollar question", I turned to a popular translation software in China: Powerword, which told me that refers to the key issue. So, I have no idea which one is more standard and popular, "the 64 thousand dollar question" or "the 64 dollar question".:( You native speakers seldom say "the 64 dollar question"?:confused:
  6. WalkintheMoonlight New Member

    So, is that the difference between the two phrases: 64,000-dollar question is more crucial, while 64-dollar question is minor?
  7. CarlLedbetter New Member

    Denver, Colorado, USA
    The correct phrase is "The 64,000 Dollar Question", and it comes from the game show of the 1950s. At the time the show was produced, there were many other game shows on TV, but their prizes were very small by comparison--the top prize for The 64,000 Dollar Question was, in fact, $64,000, which was a lot of money then. In current dollars that's the equivalent of about half a million dollars today. A contestant won the contest by answering more and more difficult questions each of which was worth twice as much, starting with $1000, so a winner had to answer 7 questions to win the top prize. The show had a horrible scandal when two of its biggest winners, Charles Van Doren and Herb Stempel were discovered to be cheating, with the complicity of the producers of the show (who were looking to create drama, not a fair contest). This led to legislation which prohibited that on TV in the U.S. So this phrase, "that's the sixty-four thousand dollar question" means "the important question" at the end--the big issue--and it also sometimes carries with it just the hint that the question may be rigged--i.e., that whoever is asking the question may have pre-determined the answer to shape the result to some desire other than the obvious one. The useage, "the sixty-four dollar question" is a bastardization of the actual phrase which is as incorrect as it is common.
  8. foxfirebrand

    foxfirebrand Senior Member

    The Northern Rockies
    Southern AE greatly modified by a 1st-generation Scottish-American mother, and growing up abroad.
    Welcome to the forums, Carl.

    I'm curious about two things. Since there was such a thing as "the $64 question" (cf post #4), as well as the jackpot-level $64,000 variety-- why is one more correct than the other, especially if the usage of both is common? Is there an authority on such things that you're playing a little close to the vest, but might be persuaded to share with us?

    And two, do you read all the posts in the threads you've joined? I've noticed you cover a number of things already explained, and it's happened in threads other than this one-- I almost mentioned this when you said "sicko" hadn't been mentioned in this thread:

    Check #21-- in fact most any post by that particular guy is worth lingering over. Just a handy tip. Your dialogue is a welcome addition, and I particularly appreciate not being the only oldfart around-- the times will be many when we will be two of the few who know what's even being talked about. The most helpful thing we can do in these threads, for learners of English, is to work together toward a consensus.
  9. CarlLedbetter New Member

    Denver, Colorado, USA
    The $64,000 Question had its roots in the CBS radio quiz show, Take It or Leave It, which ran from April 20, 1940, to July 27, 1947, hosted first by Bob Hawk and then by Phil Baker. In 1947, the series switched to NBC, hosted by Baker, Garry Moore, Eddie Cantor and Jack Paar. On September 10, 1950, Take It or Leave It changed its title to The $64 Question. With Paar and Baker still on board as hosts, the series continued on NBC radio until June 1, 1952. So, yes, there was a "$64 question", but that's not why the phrase "the $64,000 question" means what it does. The real issue for The $64,000 Question, the television show that ran from 1955 to 1958, is that when it came out its prize was 100 times as large as the prize of any other previous game show--its final question was, by contrast, a really big deal, and it's this meaning that is preserved in the phrase, "the $64,000 question" and not at all in "the $64 question".

    Sorry I missed the first mention of 'sicko'. I did see it later--I had not noticed that there were multiple pages of replies to some posts, but thought the addition of the Bozo precedent might be useful in any event, so didn't make it worse by editing it.

    As for "an authority on such things that you're playing a little close to the vest, but might be persuaded to share with us?"--there is. I grew up in a small town in California living on the same street as and spending uncounted hours with William Umbach, professor of English and Dean of the Graduate School at the University of Redlands, and, more importantly, senior etymological editor of Webster's New World Dictionary for two decades. From him I have an enormous collection of his notes on his favorite etymological treasures (I was an interested student about a subject he loved and almost no one else did), words and phrases he delighted in having personally sleuthed out origins for--thousands of them over his career. He was particularly interested in words and phrases whose origins had been undermined by new useages--his word, which I inadventently pirated, was "bastardizations". He believed in the evolution of language as a good and natural thing and so was more often amused than angry about these, but the rule he liked to apply was that the changes were OK with him as long as the metamorphisis enhanced rather than diminished precision. To my continuing amazement, Bill Umbach's lost words come up all the time (as they have here), and I threw in what I knew (or looked up in those notes) about a couple of them. The $64,000 question was one of those (and the loss of precision by reverting to "the $64 question", which misses the key notion of a really big important question-much bigger than anything before, instead of "the $64,000 question" was one of those). I've also learned that the words on his list are sometimes controversial--I once sent to the editors of Flying Magazine Dr Umbach's research on the word 'blimp', which the magazine (and most other people, including not a few etymological editors of other dictionaries) believed came from the designation of the two kinds of lighter-than-air aircraft, Type A-rigid and Type B-limp. There are still dictionaries that use this definition. Umbach never believed it ("Since the limp ones came first, why were they Type B?", was his common sense question) and went looking for the real derivation. I'll let you look it up in his dictionary to find out where the word actually comes from (and there is a wonderful story about how he found it out), but I can tell you that the editors of Flying were annoyed by my having sent them Bill's papers on the subject and persist in their incorrect belief in Type B-limp. So I've learned the hard way that even people who like words are not always intereted in hearing Bill's gems.
  10. foxfirebrand

    foxfirebrand Senior Member

    The Northern Rockies
    Southern AE greatly modified by a 1st-generation Scottish-American mother, and growing up abroad.
    I'm glad you inherited such a repository of notes, and I hope you're taking good care of them. Have you ever considered editing them into a volume? Interest in that would be considerable, and I hope you'll quote from them liberally-- as owner you're in the unique position of being able to do so verbatim without worrying about the forum's stickiness about copyright infringement. The <moderators> won't even let me quote Little Richard beyond eight bars, and it took him longer than that to say anything worth quoting. Besides, I have his autograph and could easily scribble a carte-blanche disclaimer right above it, and date it 1958-- "to my good friend and source of rockin-sockin inspiration, Foxfirebrand. Kudos on the can't-hear-yomomma-call suggestion, and feel free to quote me any damn ole time you wants."

    But none of this would countervail against commonplace usage. People use words whimsically, ironically, with mock-Sophoclean false-modesty-- as in the case of "well now, that's the sixty-four dollar question." The implication is, "if you're so worried about it, what're you doing wasting your time down here, rubbin elbows with the likes of us?" Or someone, usually a younger member of the group, will be making a big deal out of some quandry he's struggling with, and an old hand who's "seen it all before" will "agree" that it's indeed a uniquely ponderous dilemma he's up against-- "son, that's the sixty-four dollar question, isn't it."

    Ever hear the phrase "a tempest in a teapot?" My hypothetical old veteran found a way of raising the issue without putting the young guy down. He'd've ruined the effect by sticking the word "million" in there.
    Last edited by a moderator: Jun 19, 2013
  11. KodiakWil New Member

    USA English
    I believe that the phrase "64 dollar question" predates the game show "64 thousand dollar question" since I have heard the "64 dollar question" in several films from the 30's and 40's. Unfortunately, I am still seeking the origin of the phrase "64 dollar question."
  12. Faldage New Member

    USA English
    In the original radio show mentioned by CarlLedbetter in his excellent post above the top prize was $64. If you have indeed heard it in movies from the '30s then it does predate the show. A good place to check on such matters of word history is You could google that to get the url. I can't make the hyperlink yet.
  13. Candyman New Member

    Preceding the $64,000 Question TV Game Show was the $64 question radio show. Much like the internet there was a race to be the biggest and best causing considerable inflation in prizes over a period of just a few years. Many elders use the phrase 64 dollar question. A little younger and you use the phrase 64,000 dollar question. Younger yet it is the million dollar question. It is interesting to note that the 64,000 Dollar Question Game Show was rocked by scandle when it was learned that a contestant had been given the right answers in advance to pump up show ratings. Occassionally when someone refers to the 64,000 question they might actually mean that there was something not right about a situation.
  14. marget Senior Member

    Hello and welcome to the forum!:) There is actually a movie based on the scandal to which you refer: Quiz Show, great flick.
  15. iceman55 New Member

    English-American midwest
    The phrase, I believe, originated in 1945 during the Allied occupation of Germany, concerning fraternization. There were occupation forces at that time, one in Japan and one in Germany. General Douglas McArthur was in control of Japan and almost single handedly wrote the Japanese constitution. His policy towards G.I.s dating or marrying Japanese womem was very lax. He had no problem with it. During my time in the U.S. Navy during the early seventies, many servicemen had Japanese wives. That was due in part I,m sure, to an overlapping of that policy to another generation of servicemen. General Dwight Eisenhower, was in control of the occupation forces in Germany. Probably because of the de-nazification program, there were strict rules concerning socializing with Germans by the G.I.'s, especially German women. Only the most basic or formal communications were allowed, such as asking for directions, ect. A fine of one months pay was imposed on anyone caught breaking this rule. Since the war had ended and the fighting men had gone home, most of the G.I.'s at that time were privates and a privates pay then was $64 a month. So if you were a lonely G.I., far away from home, out for a night on the town or just looking for a good time, saw a nice looking frauline, walked up to her, introduced yourself and asked her for her name. Then you had just asked her "the $64 question".
  16. JamesM

    JamesM à la Mod (English Only)

    Hello, iceman55, and welcome to the forum.

    Can you provide any citation for this? Everything I can find indicates that the phrase came from the popular radio show "The $64 question" that ran from 1941 to 1948.
  17. panjandrum

    panjandrum Occasional Moderator

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    As there are examples of the use of this expression dating from 1942, the 1945 explanation seems a bit unlikely.
    1942 J. R. TUNIS All American vii. 240 Here's the sixty~four dollar question. Will the team go to Miami?
  18. iceman55 New Member

    English-American midwest
    Generally, for a phrase to become part of pop culture, re: In Like Flynn, it has some meaning or significance to a large part of society. I would contend that losing one months pay for asking a question in pretty significant.
  19. panjandrum

    panjandrum Occasional Moderator

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    From a quick look around on Google.
    This idiom was already well-estabished at national level in the US by 1944.
    That is not consistent with iceman55's story.

    Also, not many GIs were earning $64 a month in 1945.
  20. Q-cumber

    Q-cumber Senior Member

    While driving home from work today, I was listening to a BBC program regarding roller coasters. Replying to a question what makes people enjoy thrilling rides, a psychologist said: 'oh, this is a sixty-four-dollar question...'
    According to one version, the phrase origins from the fact that 64 dollars was the largest prize on a popular radio quiz show in the 1940s. Don't forget about inflation... :)
  21. kase New Member

    English-New Zealand
    Although the sixty four dollar question may have come from recent game shows the question may well be asked why 64? What significance is 64. I'm not an authority but in the Book of Job in the Bible the chief character in the story who was a sincere believer in the God of Abraham was bemoaning all the recent troubles that had befallen him. Once wealthy he had lost it all, once rich in descendants, all his family had perished, even his wife taunted him saying "curse God and die", to make matters worse his good health left him as well and all his friends offered mere platitudes. God heard his indignant complaints like "Why am I suffering when I have lived a righteous life?" And God said to Job "all right I will answer you" but the answer started with 64 questions, each one designed to reveal the inadequacy of human knowledge and the finitude of our intellect. The last question of key significance (the 64 dollar question) goes like this:"Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct [Him]? Let him who argues with God give an answer."
  22. JamesM

    JamesM à la Mod (English Only)

    That would be the 64th question, not the 64 dollar question.

    I doubt there is any biblical basis for the prize on a radio quiz show of the 1940s, although the dollar amount is an unusual one.

    [edit] If you are speaking about Job 38, 39 and 40, I count "Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct Him?" as the 53rd question in the series of God's questions, and there are many more than 64 in total as He continues on through Job 41.
    Last edited: Mar 13, 2011
  23. sergiofreeman

    sergiofreeman Senior Member

    Miami Florida
    Hi There!

    Interesting post, you have talked pretty much about history of this phrase,

    I read you mentioned that the meaning of this phrase is , an important question or a key question.

    I wondered if could be possible the meaning of this phrase would be , a difficult question as well. Here in Cuba we have an equivalent to this phrase: "the 1000 pesos question" and it has the meaning I said before, a very complicated question, a difficult one to answer.

    Thanks in advance.
  24. Matching Mole

    Matching Mole Senior Member

    England, English
    It is $64 because 64 is it is the power of 2 that was decided would be the prize limit (the top prize)—on the original show that is. The prize doubles for every successful question answered, starting with $1 then $2, $4, $8, $16, $32 and $64.
  25. solorone New Member

    I know this is an old thread, but today I was watching some very old cartoons, and they used "thats the 64 $ question" so the prior post about a game show must be accurate. Oddly at this moment I am watching Radio days.
    Last edited by a moderator: Feb 20, 2012
  26. natkretep

    natkretep Moderato con anima (English Only)

    English (Singapore/UK), basic Chinese
    There is an extensive wikipedia entry on The $64000 Question which mentions that there was a game show called the $64 dollar question as well as once called the $64,000 question.

    I sometimes also hear people saying 'That's the thousand-dollar question' with no 64 in evidence!
  27. MAJONES New Member

    San Francisco, CA, USA
    American English
    There was a scandal, depicted in the film "Quiz Show," but it was the show "Twenty One" that van Doren and Stempel appeared on, not "The $64,000 Question."

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