“Pretty Ugly”

blooms library

Harold Bloom’s home library, photographed in June. Credit Tanya Marcuse.

This tweet contrasts so starkly with the seriousness of the actual situation with Iran,” said Ben Rhodes, a former top national security aide to Mr. Obama. “We are in the midst of a roiling crisis with Iran that is largely of Trump’s own making, and yet he continues to view that largely through the prism of pretty ugly domestic politics.”
(Annie Karni, “A Narrative Collapses as Trump Tweets: ‘It Doesn’t Really Matter’,” NYT)

This quote triggers a reflection on the interesting use in English of “pretty” as what I would call an adverbial qualifier. The word is emptied of its adjectival sense of “comely” or “attractive” and becomes instead the equivalent of “fairly” or “to a great extent.” It seems to fall somewhere between the poles of “not much” and “extremely.” It’s especially fun when it happens to land alongside its opposite adjective “ugly.” 

Would a non-native speaker be confused by “pretty ugly,” wondering, “Which is it?” As a linguist I enjoy mulling how such expressions might be translated. 

In Spanish I would resort to “bastante,” which basically means “enough”; however, “bastante fea” becomes what I would call “pretty ugly.” 

In French also I would choose “assez,” or “enough”; “assez laide” is “pretty ugly” too.

(I’ve used the feminine adjectives “fea” and “laide” in both translations because “politics” is feminine in both languages: “la politica” and “la politique.”)

From a style standpoint, waffling adverbs can render statements flaccid, tepid, noncommittal, evasive, or deniable. See, for example, a statement by Stephanie Grisham, presidential press secretary, in defense of a photoshopped image retweeted by her boss:

 In an interview with Fox News, Ms. Grisham said the president was “making clear” that Democrats were “parroting Iranian talking points, almost [my emphasis] taking the side of terrorists.”

Correction: Making “almost” clear. 

(c) 2020 JMN

About JMN

I live in Texas and devote much of my time to easel painting on an amateur basis. I stream a lot of music, mostly jazz, throughout the day. I like to read and memorize poetry.
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5 Responses to “Pretty Ugly”

  1. Eric Wayne says:

    This post was awfully nice! I hear my British coworkers say “pretty shit” sometimes, and that really doesn’t work well literally.


  2. JMN says:

    Hah! Terribly kind of you! “Pretty shit” is a nice pairing. I hear a British friend use the word “crap” as an adjective also, as “This is a crap book.” In my backwater of Texas we would say “crappy.”


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