‘Kiss me mucho,’ sang my husband with a revolting leer, ‘and we’ll soar. And we’ll dance the dance of love forevermore.’
I poured myself a whisky in a vain attempt to catch up, and returned to my task.
Not so much was the subject of my researches, and I soon wondered why it had only recently begun to annoy me.
It qualifies as a catchphrase, I think, though some dictionaries of slang list it too. Much has been very productive of slang. Ben Jonson had characters exclaiming ‘Much!’ and meaning ‘not much’, 400 years ago. Contrariwise, since the second world war, Not much! has been used to contradict a statement such as ‘I seldom drink’. Muchly has served as a humorous formulation for the past century or so, and by the 1970s was looked upon as a camp element in language. Another slangy formula caught on in the 1990s, following the pattern: Jealous much? Pathetic much?
As for not so much, the usage that we are discussing is implicitly a response, as in: ‘Do you like Gefilte Fisch?’ ‘Not so much.’ Sometimes it defies standard English grammar:
‘I like this guy John Kennedy. Since him, not so much.’
We are not, then, discussing the phrase in contexts such as Not So Much a Programme, More a Way of Life (a television show produced by Ned Sherrin in 1964, between TW3 and BBC3).
According to some slangologists, it has become very fashionable since 2010, but I have found examples of people complaining about it in 2006. Unsuccessful attempts have been made to find its roots in American Jewish culture. Others seek its origins in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (screened on television between 1997 and 2003), though that seems likely to be at most a propagator.
Not so much boils down to the same meaning as Up to a point (which, in reply to Lord Copper, the newspaper proprietor in Scoop, was as near a negative as could be ventured).
Having gained popularity as a formula for humour, not so much is likely to outlive its effectiveness for an irritatingly long time. As with Simples! or Been there, done that or Anytime soon, the success of its voguishness is its undoing.