A very British talent for accentuating the negative

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The Independent Online

I think it was George Orwell who first pointed out the British habit of understatement, the way in which we react to something that's really good by saying that it is "quite nice". If it is really, really good, we say that it is "quite nice, really". If the weather is absolutely steaming hot, we say that it is "warm out". "Is this warm enough for you?" is still an accepted British way of saying that it's hot enough to singe your eyebrows.

But (and I can't remember if Orwell said this as well) it seems to me that our favourite kind of understatement, or even of statement, is in the negative. "Not bad" is even commoner than "quite nice". We love to turn everything around. "Had a good time?" we say. "Not half," people reply, or at least they would in the old days when they talked tourist cockney. "Not by a long chalk." "Not on your nelly." "Not in my book." All these negative statements. Do we seem very negative to the outside world? Not half, we don't.

And the weird thing is that lots of these negative formulas exist only in the negative and seem to have no positive mirror image. I found myself using a trite old cliché this morning: "I told him so in no uncertain terms," and as soon as I had said it, I realised not only that it was a ponderous way of saying "I told him straight out," but that nobody ever says the opposite: "I told him so in certain terms." "In no uncertain terms" is the negative version of a positive form that doesn't exist.

Here's another phrase meaning exactly the same thing. "I didn't beat about the bush." As opposed to beating about the bush? But nobody ever says: "I didn't like to tell him straight out, so I beat about the bush." The British say "I didn't beat about the bush" as if beating about the bush was normal, and not beating about the bush was a departure from conventional behaviour.

Those two concepts, in no uncertain terms and not beating about the bush, are our two favourite ways of expressing "being straight and to the point" and they are both negative expressions. What does it say about us that we use negative expressions to mean "being positive"?

(We are so negative that we don't even have a positive word meaning "not to know". The French do. It's "ignorer". "Je l'ignore" means "I don't know that." We have to say "I don't know." So negative.)

Some more of the same? No problem.

Not a million miles from here.

No great shakes.

No big deal.

No telling.

Not a lot of people know that.

Not up to scratch.

Yes, there are a lot more where those came from, these negative phrases without opposites. When did you last hear someone say: "Oh, it was great shakes"? Or, "Yes, it was a big deal"? Or even, "I thought it was up to scratch"?


Not in a month of Sundays?

Not as far as you can remember?

Perhaps one of the finest examples of British negative thinking is the phrase we often utter when we are asked if we would like to do something nice, like have a cup of tea or a drink. We think about it. The idea seems really attractive. Just for a moment, there's nothing you'd rather do. So to express our extreme keenness, we open our mouth and say:

"I don't mind if I do."

No one ever says "I do mind if I don't." That would be far too positive and dynamic. What we actually say is so lukewarm that it must be more than understatement. It must, deep down, be humorously intended.

(I often wonder why people say, when I ask them what they want to drink, "Oh, I don't mind..." They don't really mean that. They are not at all indifferent. If I were to give them a glass of warm Dubonnet, it would turn out swiftly that they did mind.)

A reader writes: Dear Mr Kington, is this actually getting us anywhere, not to put to fine a point on it?

Miles Kington writes: Not as far as I know.

A reader writes: No thanks to you.

Miles Kington writes: No skin off my nose.

Etc etc etc ad infinitum.