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When No Means Yes

You may have heard the joke about the English teacher explaining double negatives to a class of teenagers. He states that while we have various levels of positive/negative phrases, there is no case of two positives meaning a negative. To which one student responds, “Yeah, right.”

That neologism wasn’t so hard to understand, because parents and teachers are well-attuned to a sarcastic tone of voice. But now we have another language conundrum popping up that can be difficult to parse for some of us, whether it is spoken or written. It’s the phrase, “No. Totally.” Apparently it means “yes.”

“No, totally.” “No, definitely.” “No, exactly.” “No, yes.” These curious uses turn “no” into a kind of contranym: a word that can function as its own opposite. Out of the million-odd words in the English language, perhaps a hundred have this property. You can seed a field, in which case you are adding seeds, or seed a grape, in which case you are subtracting them. You can be in a fix but find a fix for it. You can alight from a horse to observe a butterfly alighting on a flower.

The blogger in me wonders how quoting people who use this will confuse a reader. The parent in me is glad to read about it so I can interpret what my kids are trying to say. Read about the new slang and how to deal with it at The New Yorker. -via Digg

(Image credit: Ellen Surrey)


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