What about How about
In the mid- to late 1820s, how about x emerges in the daily press virtually simultaneously in America and Britain, apparently as an alternative to the much older what about x. At least initially, it occupies a virtually identical semantic space.
Foster: What about Nathaniel Gibbs?
Riggs: For Gibbs, I brought Mr. Hill acquainted with Mr. Stubbs; — A Brief Narrative of that Stupendious Tragedie (trial transcript), London 1663. EEBO
What say you about Mr. Parry’s being at Windsor? — The tryals and condemnation of Lionel Anderson et al. for high treason, as Romish priests, 17 Jan. 1679, 1680. EEBO
What about is thus an ellipted form of what say you about, though the full, archaic version can still pop up for parliamentary flair:
Mr. WATT [Melvin L., D-NC]. Mr. Zitzewitz, what say you about this issue that I addressed to her, and how might it be improved? — “Mutual Fund Trading Abuses,” House Subcommittee on Commercial and Adminstrative Law, 7 June 2005.
How say you about
If what about is short for what say you about, then how about might have an analogous etymology in how say you about. The problem is that in Early Modern English, no one said it. How say you? was infrequently used with a prepositional phrase, and when it was, the preposition was to or unto (a person or topic) and rarely by (about people):
how say you then by these felowes? shall they be in the numbre of them, whom god styrred vpp againste our doctrines for that age, in which s: bernard was? — John Rastell, A replie against an ansvver (falslie intitled) in defence of the truth, 1565. EEBO
how say you to this matter? what think you to be the cause of these shelves and sands, which stop up sandwich haven? John Ray, A Collection of English Proverbs 1678. EEBO
Available attestations also suggest a much later origin:
But how say you about drawing your sword against the usurper ? — Robert S. Fittis, _ Gilderoy: a Scottish tradition_ (novel), London, 1866.
“How say you about calling it the Magazine of Wit?” asked the publisher. “That promises too much,” said his friend. “Well, then, suppose I call it Bentley's Magazine?” “Ah,” replied the wit, “that promises too little.’’ — William Mathews, “Misleading Titles of Books,” Saturday Evening Post 172/43 (21 April 1900), 980.
How say you about the rich kid that got a slap on the hand for vehicular manslaughter? — The Good Men Project, 3 April 2014.
Where the first example occurs — the earliest I could find online — is telling: in an historical novel. How say you about conveys the archaic flavor and perceived formality of Early Modern English without any actual history behind it. The publisher’s use is lightly ironic, but the question about light penalties for the privileged is aiming for the gravitas of Shakespeare.
How is it about
A more likely candidate for the expanded form of how about is an expression probably current not too long before the 1820s emergence of how about. Occurring in slightly higher registers of spoken English than the ellipted form, its virtual disappearance from American and British speech by the early 20th c. makes it difficult for contemporary speakers to penetrate to its origins: how is it about x now asks about content, not circumstance or condition.
Miss Reinhold. Well, brother, if one may be allowed to ask, how is it about Miss Sternberg? — August Wilhelm Iffland, The Bachelors (comedy), trans. of Die Hagestolzen, London, 1799.
Question. How about the Norfolk vessel ? You have already stated that there was a second board of engineers called upon the bids for the Norfolk vessel? Answer. Yes, sir, there was.
Question. How is it about the frigate Niagara ? Answer. To the best of my recollection, the Niagara’s greatest speed under steam is about twelve knots an hour. — Testimony of Samuel Archibald, Navy Dept., examined by Chairman Rep. John Sherman (R-OH), 3 Feb. 1859, House Select Committee on Naval Contracts and Expenditures, Part III, 1859.
In his questions, Rep. Sherman uses both forms of the expression in identical contexts.
Q. How is it about the leaves in the same check-book ? A. It is in the same check-book; when we printed these books for Derham we had three or four reams, and were liable to take the paper from one and mix it with another; … — Examination of Brewster Maverick by Asst. DA Andrews, New York, 8 April 1864 (forgery trial, Southern District of NY), 78.
How is it about things as they are? Should we be satisfied with them or not? The head-lines of the noon papers on the news-stands to-day cried, “Two Hundred Lost by Fire or Wave? Burning of a Steamship. ” That's not very satisfactory. — Edward Sandford Martin, “An optimist—Why not?” Harpers, Aug. 1909, 364–9. COHA
How is it about the delegates for religious purposes—are they obliged to or exempted from the duty of the Succah? — Michael Levi Rodkinson, The History of the Talmud, 1918.
To judge by these Quora questions, however, the expression still has currency among some speakers of Indian English:
How is it about studying in IDOL Mumbai University?
How is it about doing an MSc in BITS? Will there be a good scope ahead?
How about Britain?
Early occurrences of how about x in the British press are all reported speech, four of them recording something yelled out of the crowd as some public figure is making a speech:
... but my heart is as good towards him as any man’s here, and that respect I will yield to no man.—(A voice, How about the milk punch ?’) … — Taunton Courier, and Western Advertiser, 21 June 1826. BNA (paywall)
... to whom Mr. Scrivener called out how about the cabbages?— John exclaimed, how about the two notes.—Mr. S. said, do you know anything about them? — Huntingdon, Bedford & Peterborough Gazette, 1 Dec. 1827. BNA (paywall)
…when one of the crowd exclaimed, How about the rioting and breaking the machines, Edridge? — Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette, 20 Dec. 1832. BNA (paywall)
Taunton: — Wednesday, Dec. 31. …Here he was interrupted with “No. no; ’twas Mr. Bowse.” “How about the twenty millions ?” — Dorset County Chronicle, 1 Jan. 1835.
“Ah Patty, but how about your master, has he forgiven you?” “No, but I suppose he will, I am going to ask him.” — “J. E.'” Letter to the Editor, Bristol Job Nott; or, Labouring Man’s Friend no. 64, 28 Feb. 1833, 156.
Caroline Grantley. How about my own fortune, good ladies and good gentlemen? I have tried it by the stars and by the cards; and now I want to tell it by your own good-looking hands. — Charles Dance, The Beulah Spa. A Burletta in Two Acts, London, 1833.
A short distance from London on the Brighton line, the Beulah Spa had opened for business in 1831, becoming a fashionable destination in no small part through the play. Mr. Scrivener and John are involved in bartering cabbages for game, and Caroline is a fortuneteller. The hecklers from the West of England may, of course, be from any social class, but only “J. E.,” speaking to “Patty,” a “stout Irish girl” actually named Margaret, is at least middle class. One wonders if in its early years, what about was socially or regionally marked.
What about America?
Along with Laurel’s 1828 example from a Philadelphia labor newspaper to which I have no access, early American attestations suggest a British origin: early enough so that immigrants to the Colonies brought it with them, but late enough that one wouldn’t expect earlier traces of the expression in the press. Hecklers in England did not suddenly begin to vex politicians in the mid-1820s, and reporters would usually record them because it gave their readers the “you were there” feeling upon which journalism thrives.
But how about your new vocation ?” “Why, that is rather a puzzle. In the first place, it must not be any thing mechanical, for I don't know Scotch granite from Bath stone—a turning lathe from a steam engine—or a loom from a shuttle; so that if any one asked me a question on one of these subjects, I should be posed in a twinkling.” “Man of Letters,” (Godey’s) The Lady’s Book, Philadelphia, Dec. 1832, 299.
"Where are you bound from?" demanded Stamar.
"What's your lading?"
"As usual from that port — sugar and coffee."
"But how about specie? None of that, eh?”
The French captain made no reply. — State Rights and Democratic Union (Yazoo City MS), 13 Nov. 1839.
…don't you think that we had other features in common? How about eyes, nose, head and hair? — William Gilmore Simms, Border Bengals: A Tale of Mississippi, vol. 2, 1840. COHA
How about the revolutionary veteran? that's capital too good to be wasted. — Cornelius Mathews, The Politicians (play), 1840. COHA
“How about that ring!” asked John.
“A very pretty ring,” said Mr. A., and a great bargain.”
“A great bargain.”
“Yes, the stones are diamonds.” — Boon's Lick Times (Fayette, MO), 7 Aug. 1841.
“But how about the coldness existing between us?”
“Does it still exist on both sides?”
“Not on mine, Zuleika, not on mine. I forgave and forgot all long ago.” — Edmund Flagg, Edmond Dantès, 1844. COHA
“How about a buckboa'd? " he asked. ”Something you can drive yourself.” — James Fenimore Cooper, Oak Openings, 1848. COHA
The first occurrence in the Australian press is the republication of an article from an unnamed English newspaper:
Seale, to the best of his recollection, spoke first, and said, as well as he remembered, "Now, how about the 'cracking' this place of the receiver of fines. How about it?" Mott said that the sale coming off would be a very small one, and that it would be better to wait for the next, which would be a larger one. — ”The Convict Sullivan,” The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 6 Oct. 1836.
Sullivan and his accomplices’ notorious Customs House robbery and subsequent trials, at which Sullivan was sentenced to transport to Australia, were covered extensively by a number of English papers 14–20 Feb. of that year. Seale can also also be added to the list of lower class Britons using the expression.
The first “native” usage in newspapers digitalized by the National Library of Australia comes a few years later, again in a court record:
“Well, how about this money for your creditors ?” — “Supreme Court, Civil Side,” The Courier (Hobart), 18 June 1841.
Other Uses, Other Grammar
One of the most familiar modern usages, offering, suggesting, or requesting food or drink — How about a cup of tea/coffee — appears by the mid-1850s. This usage can easily be connected to Fenimore Cooper’s buckboard, but not to the original phrase. Perhaps at this stage, how about has become a true idiom:
It’s true, honest friend, I’m not very selfish,
Can stew up a clam or similar shell-fish ; How about a crab ? — New York Clipper, 27 Sept. 1856.
“Johnny, love, wouldn’t you like a little of that nice sago?” You shut your mouth and turned over mournfully. … Mother pondered “How about a roasted apple?”
The Elevator 9/1, 12 Apr. 1873.
A few years after “Johnny” reminisces about the curative powers of roasted — not baked — apples during a childhood illness, participles with subjects begin to appear alongside the usual simple noun phrase:
“ … I never, never would have married any one else, if you had staid away altogether. But indeed it was cruel to try me so bitterly.”
“And how about you sending me away?” — “A Little Fool” (short story), The Forest Republican (Tionesta, Pa.), 22 Oct. 1879.
Well, Patrick, how about you and your Catholic friends voting for Mr. Warwick? The Republican papers say, you know, he is an Orangeman. — The Stark County Democrat, 5 Sept. 1883.
This construction can take on the force of a softened imperative as well as a request:
John S . Ryan. How about you and Bro. Sweet furnishing us with your Philadelphia games ? — Chess, to Correspondents, New York Clipper, 22 Dec. 1883.
Floyd, how about you getting a piece of deer meat for the lady, seeing she’s been cheated of her supper. — Edna Ferber, Cimarron, 1930. COHA
“How about you lending me a drink? I'm all out and dry as feathers.” — Walter Dumauy Edwards, “Mr. Dennit’s Great Adventure,” Harpers Magazine, Oct. 1932. COHA
In the 19th c., a dependent clause triggers a return to the dummy subject of the original phrase:
Yes, that’s all very nice; but how about it when they get in the molasses, or some country clodhopper puts his foot on ’em. — New York Clipper, 18 June 1859.
In the 20th c., however, what looks like an independent clause begins to follow what about.
… he came back after a while and said, “Mr. Nanninga, I can't get any insurance on that barge.” I said, “How about you take a chance on it any how, send that barge out” ; he said, “No, sir, can’t do it, won’t do it.” — Direct Examination of Henry Naninga (filed, 22 Oct. 1913, Savannah GA), Naninga v. Quernsmore, Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, 1917.
Without the how about, the only difference between the first and second clause is the expressed subject: both are imperatives, but how about softens them to requests or suggestions. Unlike imperatives, the construction how about+clause can be used with all three persons:
Umanski. … (He has brought forth an English grammar) How about I go upstairs and study ? — Channing Pollock, The Fool (play), 1922.
"OK," he suggested. "So how about we take a little trip to Butte and give them guys a lesson?" — Norman Macleod, The Bitter Roots, 1941.
Manny: And then she laughs.
Jack: No, he laughs. (There is an impasse. Jack and Manny exchange hostile glances.)
Moe (finally): Look, fellas, how about they both laugh. Like it's a happy-type-of-thing. — Esquire, 1958, 58.
How about you give me a hint. — “One of those days,” Australia Women’s Weekly, 26 Nov. 1975, 143.
Whether this form is more assertive than, say, a participle probably depends more on the nature of the utterance and tone of voice than grammatical form. How about stopping that right now and How about you stop that right now are marginally softer than the imperative, but the difference between the two how-abouts seems minimal to me.
A participle also explains why your sentence How about the speaker breaks sounds unidiomatic unless you’re suggesting a plot point in a sitcom. If you change the action to an event: How about the speaker breaking, then all is well.
In its request/suggestion mode, how about can also trigger the present subjunctive. Given that verbs such as ask, propose, request, recommend, or suggest traditionally require that verb form, it’s hardly surprising that a what about clause could do the same. It would be highly unusual to call any clause with a verb in the present subjunctive independent.
How about I be a maiden in distress and you rescue me? — Don Del Grande, Life of Monty 38, 6 Feb. 1984.
Someone from Essington, Pennsylvania, US posted a whisper, which reads “How about they be courteous and not be loud!!!” — Whisper.
Stanton was brought here to be a finishing piece to a champion. How about he be a key to simply getting the Yankees a home wild-card game first? — Joel Sherman, “Giancsrlo Stanton is Risking the Wrath Once Saved for A-Rod,“ New York Post, 13 Sept. 2018.
Felix has the truck all warmed up, so how about he take you to get your things first and then bring you to your new home? — Linda Apple, Avalee's Gift, 2017.
The irrepressible, irreplaceable Sinead O'Connor. How about she be herself and we just be thankful for it? — Highline Ballroom, 23 Feb. 2012.
How about it be a human right to not pay to live and be safe and healthy? —Twitter
“Quotative” how about
When a how about clause suggests a point of view rather than a request or suggestion, then it can function much like as a quotative. Some writers instintively mark this use with punctuation, while others simply plough through. In this usage, how about can be followed by any independent clause with a verb in any tense:
How about “They are different because this specific Sith did this specific action, while in contract, this specific Jedi did this specific action.” — “Why are the Sith bad? IGN Boards, 8 Mar. 2009
How about, they are fun and exciting? How about, the satisfaction that comes from mastering that vehicle, becoming an excellent driver, learning about the mechanics of it? — Self-Driving Cars and the Coming Urban Transformation, Real Vision
How about, he should have told me? — Pat Tucker, All About Him, 2017, 92.
How about they are calling it a small business, working x hours per week in order to claim max entitlement to tax credits, that kind of thing? — Money Saving Expert, 16 Sept. 2014.
An earlier question on this website notes that the Dictionary of American Slang dates even more informal how’s about to ca. 1925. This is far too late for it to be an alternative abbreviation of how is it about, and it is also highly unlikely that it derives from the Irish greeting _how’s about ye, which abbreviates is.
In Head-Driven Phrase Structure Grammar (1994), Carl Pollard and Ivan A. Sag suggest that in contrast to how about, how’s may only be used to make requests.
The extra s was especially popular in the 30s and 40s. The Library of Congress copyright catalogue for musical compositions includes this tune from 1933:
How's about it; w[ords] Archie Gottler, m[usic] Jerry Gottler; with ukulele arr. Apr. 25, 1933; E pub. 36069; Sherman, Clay & Co. 7778
How’s About It is also the title of a 1941 film starring the Andrews Sisters, Buddy Rich, and Shemp Howard, one of the original Three Stooges. I don’t know if there were any ukeleles.
A self-help course from that resolute institution of the aspiring middle class, the Better-Speech Institute of America, has this example of boorish behavior:
There is, for example, the salesman who sits on the edge of the reception girl's desk and says, "Hello, Beautiful. How's about letting me see the purchasing agent today?" — Estelle B. Hunter, Personality Development: A Practical Self-Teaching Course, 1939.
Beyond carrying an extra does of slang, the extra s is meaningless, the spelling an analog of how’s, abbreviation of how is/has. The latest instance of “slang s” would be something like adorbs or for reals.
As a truncated form of the now obsolete how is it about, how about appears almost simutaneously in the mid- to late 1820s in Britain and America as an alternative to what about. With words or expression limited to the spoken language, court records and other recorded speech are the only means of knowing of their existence. Perhaps this spontaneous appearance tells us more about the readiness of the early 19th c. press to record the speech of common people than the age of how about.
Though still with a great deal of semantic overlap, if native speakers want a stronger contrast in the sense of “wait, you aren’t considering this” or “what about this you don’t want to talk about,” native speakers tend to use what about. If those early 19th c. hecklers were making their displeasure known today, they would more likely say, “What about the riots?” or “What about the 20 million” than the original how.
Beginning with simple noun phrases, how about began to head participial phrases with subjects, clauses with a present subjunctive verb, and in its “quotative” function, any independent clause. It can soften imperatives and include all three persons in singular or plural. It also became a common way of politely offering someone something to eat or drink.
The most remarkable feature of how about is the use of the present subjunctive, not in terms of its meaning — I suggest, request, propose this or that — but because how about is an interrogative, not a verb. Despite broad similarities in use, I could find no corresponding constructions using what about. This may make how about unique in present day English.