I am wonderfully thankful for the British Museum. Nobody comes bothering around me -- nobody elbows me -- all the room and all the light I want under this huge dome -- no disturbing noises -- and people standing ready to bring me a copy of pretty much any book that ever was printed under the sun...
Twain wrote that in his journal about an 1872 trip to England. It's reprinted in Letters from the Earth (p. 180).
I started paying attention to the phrase after my parents said they liked the short-lived TV series American Dreams but were amused that characters said "pretty much." "No one would've said that in 1964," Mom said. I started searching for its earliest uses: found it in 1979's Alien, Stephen King's 'Salem's Lot from 1975, even the novel Revolutionary Road from the 1950s. Now this, this blows those away.
I still insist "pretty much" is a weed. Really, is it needed as often as it's used? What's it modifying? It's saying "something is almost completely something, but not 100% completely complete." It's almost always pointless. It may be a fill-in word, like "like" or "uh," to give the speaker time to think the thoughts that'll be spoken next. Anyway. I read the phrase, even in kradical's novels, and mentally edit it out (sorry, Keith). I try not to say it ("Omit needless words," said Strunk). Heck, I even have trouble listening to that album by the great Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris, 'cause one song has "pretty much" in the chorus. (Though its use in that Jack Johnson song somehow doesn't bother me. Seems to fit. "It seems to me that maybe/ It pretty much always means no...")
Phraseology is my beat. It has to be someone's.