Friday, 16 July 2021

The sixty four thousand dollar question

I was chatting the other day, and responded - without thinking - "ah, now that's the sixty four thousand dollar question, isn't it!" I then stopped to think: why do we quantify important questions with a value of $64,000?

I decided to go looking, and found in short order an article (see the image accompanying this post) by Smith from 1957 (p. 65), mentioning a US television programme by the written name of "$64,000 Question", which is always said as "the sixty four thousand dollar question".

This programme was a quiz show from 1955 to - I think - 1958 where the big prize that the winning participant sought was USD$64,000 (PBS, n.d.). Sponsored by Revlon, this show is where the saying comes from. 

However, the amount of $64,000 has its own story. In 1940s America there was a radio show, called "Take it or Leave It", which ran from 1940 to 1950. Participants were asked questions on science, sports, history or music, ranging from $1 to $64, rewarded for difficulty (Radio Hall of Fame, n.d.). At any point the participant could "take it" (the money) or "leave it" and answer the next question, similar to the Selwyn Toogood radio programme in New Zealand, It's in the Bag (NZHistory, n.d.; NZonScreen, n.d.) which started in 1954. 

The "Take it or Leave It" show was renamed "The $64 Question" in 1950 (Radio Hall of Fame, n.d.). This was just in time to be taken up by TV in the mid-50s in its new incarnation: the Sixty four thousand dollar question (PBS, n.d.). The show was so popular that the phrase became pervasive, and now means:

"the thing that people most want to know, or that is most important" (OED, n.d.)

Roll forward with half a century's inflation... and we now have a million dollar question :-) 


Sam

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