Does anyone have a sense of when the phrase "for real" (meaning: "Is that so?") entered the American vernacular?
I really want to know if it started being used around the start of the Vietnam War era (ca. 1961).
The expression appears to be from the '40s, probably of Yiddish origin:
For real (adjective phrase)
Believably existent; as good or bad as seems; authentic :
- But if you ask if they are for real, the answer is right there/ I often wondered if the bastard was for real
For real (adverb phrase)
Really; truly :
- I'm gonna for real do it, right now
[1940s+; based on Yiddish far emmes, ''for true?'']
(The Dictionary of American Slang, Fourth Edition by Barbara Ann Kipfer, PhD. and Robert L. Chapman, Ph.D.)
If you are asking specifically about the two-word question "For real?" a reliable answer is difficult to nail down because searches generally don't take question marks into account—and there are a lot of instances of "for real" that have nothing to do with the set phrase "for real."
Clarence Major, Juba to Jive: A Dictionary of African-American Slang (1994) has this entry:
[For] Real adj. (1940s–1960s) sincere, genuine; honest. (A[lan] L[omax], M[ister] J[elly] R[oll (1950)], p. 30. W[entworth &] F[lexner], D[ictionary of] A[merican] S[lang (1967)], p. 422; P[amela] M[unro], UCLA S[lang (1989)], p. 71.) S[outhern and] N[orthern] U[se]
The Mister Jelly Roll quotation from 1950 isn't really on point, since it involves the word real, not the phrase "for real":
"The Pechet family—look at me, I'm a Pechet, but old Mimi there, she was born Felicie Baudoin. She married in with us—Pierre Pechet, a cigar manufacturer and a real Creole. What I mean by real Creole, he was French and Spanish and spoke both languages. Like me. ..."
The Wentworth & Flexner quotation, however, is entirely relevant, and it appears in the first edition of Dictionary of American Slang (1960) as well in the 1967 second edition cited by Major:
for real 1 Real; existing; possible. Often in Are you for real? May imply either "too good to be true" or. orig., "unbelievable." Popularized by comedian Jerry Lewis, c1950. 2 Really.
An example of that usage appears in William Cox, Make My Coffin Strong (1954) [combined snippets]:
Socker explained, “Mostly on television you got these boys who look real good to the guy at home. They get the build-up. Flash boxers, who throw punches that can be seen on a small screen. Elbow boys with personality. People write letters, they like 'em.”
“You mean fighters have to make like ham actors for television?”
Sailor Hock looked at him with contempt. He grunted, “Listen to the square. Is he for real?”
But the expression "for real" in the sense of "real, existing, possible" goes back considerably farther than 1950. The earliest match for the phrase in a Google Books search is from Bruno Lessing, "The Tool-Chest," in Cosmopolitan (January 1910):
Sammy [Livatsky] gazed at her [the teacher] in doubtful silence for a moment, then, like one who ventures all upon the cast of a die, he asked, “Is he for real?”
“Is Santa Claus real? Why, of course he's real, Sammy. He comes around every Christmas and brings every good little boy a present.”
Sammy's pallid countenance lit up with a faint smile of superior wisdom. “Only for Krishts,” he said. “He don't come by Jew boys. Maybe if I want for a tool chest he don't come by me.”
As this excerpt indicates, for performs filler duty in various aspects of Sammy's speech—both in the case of "for real" to signify "real" and in the case of "want for" to signify "want."
Leo Rosten, The Joys of Yinglish (1989) has this entry on the expression:
for real . . . ? This brisk, cynical phrase is immensely popular in Yinglish circles—particularly among the financial community and Yuppies. Like for free, for real is a modified metaphrase from the Yiddish, far emmes?: "for true," "Is it really true?"
For real is an idiomatic substitute for:
- "Is he [she, are they] really serious?"
- "Is he crazy—or really this way?"
- "Am I to take his action [statement, request, demand] seriously—or is he just putting on an act?"
- "That conduct is so bizarre that I wonder if it is meant to be taken seriously."
- "Is he [she] putting us on?"
Claims that the expression "for real" has a Yiddish connection seem vindicated by the 1910 Bruno Lessing story and (to a lesser extent) by the Wentworth & Flexner's assertion in 1960 that the expression "Are you for real?" was popularized by Jerry Lewis (Joseph Levitch); Lewis's parents were (according to his Wikipedia article) "Russian Jewish."
The shortened, stand-alone question, "For real?" seems to have emerged much more recently. The oldest instance I found in a far from exhaustive series of Google Books search was from Danzy Senna, Caucasia (1998):
"Birdy Lee? For real?"
"Yeah, for real."
But that expression probably originated in the longer form of "Are you for real?" meaning "Really?"
Early use of 'for real' in the pleonastic interrogative sense of "is that so?" did not readily emerge from the millions of uses in "for real estate", "for real or imaginary injuries", and other similar phrases to be found in popular press archives for the period from the 18th through the 20th centuries.
However, declarative use of the pleonastic phrase (and, therefore, likely interrogative use) with the same or a sense similar to 'it is true' or 'it is so', was established by the early 1900s. This is evidenced by the following examples from 1904 and 1908.
"Don't bother me, old man," Warren begged. "Now I'm up against it for real!"
New-York Tribune, June 19, 1904, Page 14. In a story by Chester Peake, third column, ll 4-5.
Don't laugh — this isn't a joke, — it's "for real."
Monroe City Democrat (Monroe City, Mo.), 19 March 1908, image 7 (no page numbering). In the second column, end of second full paragraph.