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Meaning and Origin of the Idiom: The Million Dollar Question

Studio setting for the TV show called "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" in Bulgaria
Studio setting for the TV show called "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" in Bulgaria | Source

The Meaning of the Idiom “Million Dollar Question”

The phrase “the million dollar question” is used in colloquial speech in many parts of the English speaking world. The use of the idiom emphasizes that the question being asked is a crucial one. It's used when the speaker wants to signal that this particular question is the one that needs an answer to resolve a make-or-break situation.

It's often used as part of a rhetorical question. i.e. there's no real answer to the question posed. The question is left to hang in the air unanswered while the questioner and their listener ponder the unknowable.

For example, a student is bragging about a fantastic job offer he's received which is conditional upon him achieving outstanding grades. His listener bursts his confidence by saying “But the million dollar question is – how are you going to get those grades when you barely scraped a pass in your exams last year?” A thoughtful silence follows.

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TV Quiz Game Shows

You may already have guessed that the phrase "the million dollar question" has its origins in a TV game show, but you are probably not aware which show (or shows) and how old the use of the phrase really is.

There are two linked sources for the phrase and they both relate to popular TV quiz game shows. In each of these contests (one historic and one current) contestants have the chance to win an enormous sum of money. The sum is so large that for most winners it will change their lives; a life-changing amount of money.

A contestant is asked to answer increasingly difficult questions. In order to win, they must answer each question correctly. There are no "passes" allowed. A winner will be someone who has a broad general knowledge as well as a lucky streak that day. The common factor between the shows is that tension is ramped up as the game progresses. The quiz host emphasizes how much money they will lose if they answer the next question incorrectly.

The quiz show incorporates an element of gambling as the format is often "double or quit". The studio audience gets involved to add to the tension and excitement of the show. With each correct answer a contestant is offered the option to double their winnings or lose everything on their next answer. In other words they are given the opportunity to gamble all their winnings up to that point on a single question. If they answer it correctly, their stake money is doubled. But if they get the answer wrong they lose it all and forfeit their place in the show.

TV Studio of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" in El Salvador.
TV Studio of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" in El Salvador. | Source

1940's TV Game Show: Take It or Leave It

The original television show that most people count as the source of the phrase “million dollar question” is “Take It or Leave it.” This was a television quiz show aired by CBS in the United States from 1940. A contestant who answered a question correctly was asked each time whether they wanted to take the money at that stage in the game, or would rather leave it in the pot and answer another question. By leaving the prize-money on the table, there was potential for the total sum to be doubled.

“Take It or Leave It” changed its title to “The Sixty Four Thousand Dollar Question” in 1950 to reflect the increased amount of prize money on offer. After answering seven questions correctly, a contestant would win $64,000. Winning this prize money was an extremely rare event as each question asked in sequence, was increasingly obscure and challenging. Thus the catchphrase “that’s the sixty four thousand dollar question” came to mean a difficult and complicated question.

$64,000 Dollar Question Game Show (from the 1950's)

1990's Who Wants to be a Millionaire?

The TV quiz game show that is credited with popularizing the phrase “million dollar question” is, however, a British one. In the United Kingdom, an updated version of the 1940s American $64,000 Question show was shown on British ITV in 1998 as “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?”

The show was an instant hit with prime-time TV audiences. It offered anyone with a broad general knowledge the prospect of a huge prize of £1 million. The show’s host Chris Tarrant used the catchphrase “million pound question” as a way of building the tension as contestants reached the really difficult question. The top prize of the British “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire” is £1,000,000.

The show has been syndicated around the world and the top prize is $1,000,000 in the United States with its multi-million person viewing figures. The idiom or catchphrase “the million dollar question” therefore relates directly to the American version of the quiz show.

Host Vic Sotto asks the questions in a US episode of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?".
Host Vic Sotto asks the questions in a US episode of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?". | Source

"Who Wants to be a Millionaire" Franchise

The Millionaire brand has achieved international fame and continued success through franchise agreements with TV networks around the world. It has been a long-running success in UK, USA and across Europe and beyond.

“Who Wants To Be a Millionaire” broadcast its 30th series on UK television in 2013. Soon after, a decision was taken by the ITV network to axe the program from its schedules and the last of the series was shown on British TV on 4th February 2014. However the show continues to be watched and enjoyed by millions in its franchised form in the four corners of the globe.

“Who wants to be a millionaire” is one of the most successful internationally franchised game shows. The franchise is currently owned by Sony TV and to date it has been aired in more than 100 countries. BBC News reported in 2013 that this quiz game show has been the most popular international TV show ever, as measured by the profits it has generated.

Map of countries which have had or have their own versions of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Also shown in other countries which do not have their own version, such as the Middle East, Caribbean, North and East Africa, New Zealand.
Map of countries which have had or have their own versions of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Also shown in other countries which do not have their own version, such as the Middle East, Caribbean, North and East Africa, New Zealand. | Source

Who Wants To Be A Millionaire Bloopers and Fails Video

Of course, even the best produced shows make a few mistakes. The video below is a compilation of some of the best bloopers and howlers from the "Who Wants to be a Millionnaire" game shows.

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2 comments

grand old lady profile image

grand old lady 2 years ago from Philippines

How interesting to know that the phrase came from a game show. These days however, while becoming a millionaire is nice and I'd jump at the chance, now people want to be billionaires, according to the song.


Chris Neal profile image

Chris Neal 2 years ago from Fishers, IN

Growing up, I often heard the phrase "That's the sixty-four thousand dollar question." Even us kids who had never seen the show used it. I wasn't aware of people using the phrase "million dollar question" but it certainly makes sense. Thanks for the article!

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