No irregularity, no solecism is too picayune to escape the insolent linguist’s busy beavering, which leads to officious palaver such as this about matters too minute to merit attention from the practical person. Even in the days before I could call myself a “former” linguist the phrase “grammatically correct” was deprecated by a certain scholarly constituency, much as the phrase “politically correct” is deprecated, or at least considered pejorative, by many today.
I tried recently to come to terms privately with what Pee Cee as a term of derision connotes, and worked my way through the following possibilities: complacent elitism, stodgy broadmindedness, stubborn tolerance of differentness, quixotic openness, naive politesse, empty etiquette observance, unexamined adherence to ritual and decorum, senseless sensitivity, queasy avoidance of vitriol and vituperation, overemphasis on the rights of others, obstinate altruism, fact-obsessed truth-seeking in the face of super-obvious opinion, and I don’t remember what else. None of it resolved the paradox of blameworthy correctness for me, so I resolved to simply set the phrase aside for now. I’m happy to do likewise for the Gee Cee phrase.
A photograph appeared in the news of a bartender printing a message on a chalkboard outside his establishment on the Mississippi coast as Hurricane Gordon approached: “Ain’t afraid of no rain.” This is a superbly expressive utterance, entirely correct for its time and place and circumstance. It draws on one of many viable dialects that are alive and well among English speakers. The old “double negative” is much maligned, but renders service that the “proper” expression doesn’t. “I can’t get no satisfaction” was a perfect lyric by the Rolling Stones to communicate young men’s frustration everywhere over lack of “girly action.” I caution my dog Bess every morning not to give way to an inopportune act of elimination in some remote reach of the house before I take her out: “Bess, don’t go do anything anywhere.” As negatives go it’s severely correct for the dialect I use, but “Don’t go do nothing nowhere” would be a linguistically acceptable alternative (though not Gee Cee).
Here’s the specimen that got me thinking about the double negative: The Voice didn’t appear to have a strong sense of identity anymore, in part because the New York that it covered — downtown, the underground, bohemia and its ephemera — didn’t exist anymore, neither in a physical sense nor as a state of mind.
(Tricia Romano, “Last Rites for the Village Voice, a Bohemian Who Stayed On Too Long,” NYTimes, 9-5-18)
I would have written “didn’t exist anymore, *either* in a physical sense *or* as a state of mind.” If the double negative isn’t a lapse, it might be justified as stylistic license to lend greater emphasis. I’m not sure that argument would have great weight in this context, though.
The second specimen that got my attention has nothing to do with the double negative: Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie star in their third season of comedy sketches. At times eccentric, frantic and always unpredictable, Fry and Laurie are a comedic tour-de-force who push the envelope with their brand of smart, irrelevant humour, memorable characters and their fantastic musical numbers.
I did a double take on “irrelevant.” I’ve enjoyed several seasons of these wonderful sketches, and they’re eminently relevant for me. The person who puffed the series may have intended “irreverent.” It’s a fun slip.
[Copyright (c) 2018 James Mansfield Nichols. All rights reserved.]