The Grammarphobia Blog

Bigger than a breadbox

Q: The other day I told my dad that I had gotten him a birthday present, and he said, “Is it bigger than a breadbox?” Where did this expression come from?

A: The question “Is it bigger than a breadbox?” was popularized by Steve Allen when he was a panelist on the TV quiz show “What’s My Line.”

The object of the show was to guess the occupation of a mystery guest. This meant that panelists often had to ask questions about a product invented or produced by the mystery guest.

The breadbox question became a comic refrain on “What’s My Line,” the longest-running game show in the history of prime-time network TV. It lasted for 18 seasons, from 1950 to 1967. Allen, a comedian, composer and writer, later wrote a book entitled Bigger Than a Breadbox.

Descriptive phrases like “no larger than a breadbox” and “not much bigger than a breadbox” were known in the 1940s. But it was Allen’s “Is it bigger than a breadbox?” that kept the usage alive long after breadboxes were a distant memory.

Other panelists on “What’s My Line” (no, there was no question mark) included the columnist Dorothy Kilgallen, the publisher Bennett Cerf, the actor Arlene Francis, the comedian Fred Allen, and the poet Louis Untermeyer, who was blacklisted during the McCarthy era and forced off the show.

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