Not to be hypersensitive, but I can’t help but wince when someone says, “no offense, but …,” and then goes straight into an insult.
Just as “not to bore you with the details” leads inexorably to a bunch of boring details, “not to belabor the point” guarantees heavy belaboring ahead.
Some nots just aren’t really no’s. Not really that different from the dentist’s prevarication, “This won’t hurt.”
Still, there’s nothing worse than an N.P.I. “It’s no laughing matter when a political joke gets elected. No pun intended.”
These have-it-both-ways denied denials are not uncommon. It’s no secret that George Orwell hated the “not un-” construction. His recommended antidote to the N.U.C. was to memorize the silly line, “A not unblack dog was chasing a not unsmall rabbit across a not ungreen field,” which I’ve found not unhelpful.
One can’t stop wondering, though, where does that leave Tom Jones and “It’s Not Unusual?”
It has not been unremarked that the previous president perfected his insult skills as a boy on Long Island playgrounds. One of his put-downs was to tweet after Kim Jong-un called him an old lunatic, “Why would Kim Jong-un insult me by calling me ‘old,’ when I would never call him ‘short and fat?’ ” Not to put too fine a point on it, what about the lunatic part?
Rhetoric teachers in antiquity wrote about a related trick. You can make an understated claim by denying the opposite. For example, during a recent Mariners broadcast, Dave Sims exclaimed, “Wow! That’s the 14th homer by Julio Rodriguez. Not bad for a rookie,” (which was no exaggeration.) Nikki Giovanni ends a poem with the moving understatement: “the world is / not a pleasant place to be without / someone.”
Unfortunately, the ancient rhetoricians’ command of English fell somewhere short of Dubya’s, who after all had the advantage of a Yale education, so they fell back on their native Greek and, not to be pedantic, called it litotes, “smooth.”
You can’t fail to remember history’s least forgotten litotes. The soon to be no longer chieftain of the Aztecs, Cuauhtemoc, with the gold-mad conquistadores holding his feet to a fire, quipped, “This is not a bed of roses.” Whether we know the term litotes or not, our sarcastic “he’s not the sharpest tool in the shed” doesn’t fail to bring a smile.
When my daughter was a middle schooler in the mid ’90s, I was surprised by the expression “psych,” which she would use to deny a statement she’d just made. “Dad, those argyle socks and plaid shorts look cool. Psych!” When I was in junior high in the early ’60s, the seventh grade Amazons towering over 4-foot-11-inch Mini-Me used a similar retroactive negative. “Hey, Danny, you’re getting so tall, you should ask Evella Morgan to dance. Just kidding!” (J.K., nowadays.) Why, just the other day I overheard, “Gasoline is such a bargain. Not!”
Our Double Negative Rule, known as the D.N.R. by people in the know, is a bizarre imposition of arithmetic on speech. “Two negatives make a positive,” no? Many other languages have a different approach called Negative Concord, or N.C., which basically means that if a sentence has a negative word, all the indefinites like anyone must not be positives, either — or is it, neither? Not to worry.
“No hizo nadie nada nunca,” in Spanish is literally: “no one did nothing never.” Since the 470 million native speakers of Spanish don’t misunderstand each other by violating the D.N.R. but by following N.C., the phrase just means “No one ever did anything,” and that’s not exactly good.
Grammar police have been ticketing English scofflaw writers with the D.N.R. since sometime after the Magna Carta. Chaucer, however, the Father of English Literature, had no problem writing “There never was no man nowhere so virtuous” in MCCCLXXX.
Three centuries later, things had changed, and Sir Phillip Sydney’s doggerel Sonnet 63 ends “For grammar says / to grammar who says nay? / That in one speech two negatives affirm!”
To which I say, “Nay, no way!”
If double negatives were good enough for King James and Shakespeare didn’t sniff at a triple negative in Richard III, “I never was nor never will be,” who am I to be pickier than thou?
I won’t keep harping on multiple negatives, but I know you won’t not laugh at this joke: A linguistics professor is rattling on in class one day. “In English,” he says, “A double negative forms a positive. In some languages, though, such as Russian, a double negative is still a negative. However, there is no language wherein a double positive can form a negative.” A student in the back row mutters, “Yeah, right.”
Not to mention that if there were ever any naysayers denying that rock-n-roll originated in the music of African Americans, they ought not to ignore the lyrics. The D.N.R. not being a regulation in African American Vernacular English, Albert King’s blues masterpiece, “Born Under a Bad Sign,” has two negatives that don’t make a positive. “If it wasn’t for real bad luck / I wouldn’t have no luck at all.”
Not for nothing have we heard white rockers all these years sing, “Never understood that it ain’t no good,” “We don’t need no education,” and “It ain’t me, I ain’t no fortunate one.”
What if Mick Jagger had sung “I cannot get any satisfaction?”
Better English, yes. Better lyrics? Not hardly.
“Hey, Mr. Other Side, you’ve just written 900 words about nothing.”
Dan Clouse is an award-winning columnist. He lives in Lakebay.
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