LINGUIST List 2.877

Fri 27 Dec 1991

Disc: Postultimate posting on NOT (summary)

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  1. Larry Horn, Re: 2.848 Last Posting on NOT

Message 1: Re: 2.848 Last Posting on NOT

Date: Sat, 21 Dec 91 21:09:22 EDT
From: Larry Horn <LHORNYALEVM.YCC.Yale.Edu>
Subject: Re: 2.848 Last Posting on NOT
Postultimate posting on (what I shall call, following Nancy Dray) Retroactive
 First of all, many thanks to all 32 people who sent return messages (either
directly to me or through the net) on their encounters with and/or intuitions
about this construction. Summarizing the data, it appears that most of the
respondents (18) associate the construction with the Wayne's World segment of
Saturday Night Live, and a few also with the movie Bill and Ted's Excellent
Adventure, reflecting the same general culture (high-school age, or slightly
post-, white suburban flip contemporary). But no actual citations seem to
have occurred in Bill & Ted, nor in the also mentioned Peewee's Playhouse,
which returns us to Wayne's World. (Perhaps I'm not the only netreader who is
now, for better or worse, much more fully informed about this aspect of
contemporary American culture.) It appears, however, that (as mentioned by
several correspondents) WW's role was to perpetuate Retro-NOT, or to
spread it, not to originate it. (Incidentally, the idea that a TV show can
play a major role in fostering, if not initiating, syntactic change is itself
perhaps worthy of investigation.) Several correspondents insist that they
were intimate with Retro-NOT as adolescents, in places like upstate New York
and Iowa, in the 60's or 70's. It is not clear whether the usage was then
rediscovered in the mid to late 80's and then spread rapidly through the
catalyzing effects of SNL/WW and more recently commercials for Budweiser,
McDonald's, etc. Other readers suggested an origin in Hawaiian Creole,
Californian surfspeak or Valspeak, or (more dubiously) Pennsylvania
German. Parallels, though not genetic relationships, were suggested with
Yiddish curse-cancellation and Northwestern Australian sarcastic cancellation
via the egressive velaric quasi-rectal bilabial trill.
 Functionally, it appears to me from the contributions I've received that
the core or prototypic use of this "NOT" is to establish or reinforce the
sarcastic intent behind one's own or one's interlocutor's previous
affirmation. This function collects such diverse citations as the current
Budweiser commercial (elderly lady to rock guitarist, post-riff, "Hey, you're
good. [PAUSE] NOT!"), the current McDonald's Lean (or is it Lite?) commercial
(A: "Brain surgery". A&B: NOT!), and various real and constructed sequences
(one young woman to another after guy passes by: "Oh god, he's really hot.
[PAUSE] NOT!"); (A [on rainy day]: "Nice weather." B: NOT!"). As noted by
contributors, the original statement "denied" by this NOT must be mutually
believed to be false, and there's often a sense of a garden path, brought out
by the pause before the "denial". As is typical of irony, the mutual belief
invoked is held by speaker and some "in-group" audience, which in the Bud
commercial presumably includes the viewer but not, at first, the guitarist.
 One aspect not generally noted is what is for me a
characteristic intonation often (although not always) carried by this NOT,
which strikes me as reminiscent of the buzzer for wrong answers one hears on
game shows, or (gratia Peter Hendriks) of the buzzer used in drinking games.
Within the last two week I encountered a buzzered NOT in a garden path
invoked by Chris Berman in a TV sports highlight show ("Week 16, Giants and
Redskins, what a huge important game in the NFL. [PAUSE] NOT." --where the
game was in fact anticlimactic and meaningless) and from my own 9-year-old son
("You're my favorite person. [PAUSE] NOT! [SHORTER PAUSE] Just kidding.")
I would imagine the use of this construction might be of interest to those
investigating the structure of irony, especially the us-against-them aspect
and the echoic dimension noted by Sperber & Wilson and others.
 There then seems to be a set, or overlapping sets, of extended peripheral
uses of Retroactive NOT, which need not involve the dimensions of garden
pathing or shared recognition of sarcastic intent. But what really interested
me, and what emerges from most of what I'm calling the core cases, is
precisely the interactionist dimension where some degree of what I think of as
"double processing" is involved. It is well known that NL negation tends to
precede its focus or target even when typologic syntactic considerations mili-
tate against this order. Jespersen discusses this tendency at length, which I
cite and exemplify in my recent book on negation, where I call it "Neg-first";
what motivates it is the obvious need to signal negation as early as possible,
even at the cost of introducing ambiguity, in order to avoid potentially
crucial misinterpretations, especially in directive speech acts: Kill
him...oops...not! But I submit it is this very cooperativeness-based motiva-
tion for EARLY negation that is exploited so successfully by the use of LATE
negation of the garden-pathing, sarcastic variety. As I'm sure you all agree.
[PAUSE, then all together now, at the top of our lungs...]
 Once again, thanks to all. --Larry Horn
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