A very British talent for accentuating the negative

Share
Related Topics

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"?

Never?

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Implementation Consultant (VB,C#, SQL, Java, Eclipse, integ

£40000 - £50000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: SQL Impl...

SQL Technical Implementation Consultant (Java, BA, Oracle, VBA)

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: SQL Technical ...

Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, Fidessa, Equities)

£85000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, ...

Lead C# Developer (.Net, nHibernate, MVC, SQL) Surrey

£55000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Lead C# Develo...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: Still all to play for at our live iDebate

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
 

The leak of Jennifer Lawrence's nude photos isn't her fault. But try telling that to the internet's idiots

Grace Dent
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor