In a good way

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Today's Zits:

The idea that you can mean something "in a good way" or "in a bad way" is similar to the idea of the connotation of a word or phrase: something suggested or implicated beyond its essential or primary or literal meaning.  But the connotational difference between "strong-willed" and "pig-headed", or "thrifty" and "miserly", is a more or less fixed property of the words involved.

Meaning something in a good or a bad way, on the other hand, is seen as a choice that the speaker or writer can make.  The commonest case seems to be for someone to say something that would most naturally be taken as bad, adding that "I mean that in a good way"

This addendum of course is often ironic, and perhaps especially so if presented in the superlative form "I mean that in the best possible way". Negative forms are fairly common as well, e.g. "I don't mean that in a good way", "I mean that in the worst possible way", etc.

There's also a set of ways for the recipient of a message to add a perhaps-unexpected evaluation  — "I take that as a compliment", and so on.

I don't think that there's a linguistic term of art for the phenomenon of asserting that a non-obvious emotional valence is to be imposed on messages sent or received. And as a matter of historical stylistics, I wonder where and when the specific class of phrases like "I mean that in a good way" arose.

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30 Comments »

  1. Theophylact said,

    March 31, 2009 @ 1:12 pm

    The clumsy recovery is often wonderful. I'm reminded of this one by John Gielgud (from the NYT obit):

    While having lunch with the playwright Edward Knoblock, he said: "Do you see that man coming in? He's the biggest bore in London — second only to Edward Knoblock." Then realizing who was sitting next to him, he said: "Not you, of course. I mean the other Edward Knoblock."

  2. jfruh said,

    March 31, 2009 @ 1:40 pm

    A gay friend of mine, riffing on the tendency of American teens to use "gay" as a synonym for "bad," once said, "That's so gay — and not in a good way."

  3. mollymooly said,

    March 31, 2009 @ 1:56 pm

    Pickwickian?

  4. pc said,

    March 31, 2009 @ 1:56 pm

    Perhaps these can be classed as "metapragmatic" specifications.

  5. Terry Collmann said,

    March 31, 2009 @ 2:48 pm

    I am reminded of my 10-year-old daughter's prefacing unpleasant personal remarks with the words: "No offence, but …"

  6. Michael Johnson said,

    March 31, 2009 @ 3:58 pm

    I'm not sure I understand the analysis. I took the phenomenon to work like this. Certain sentences are not ambiguous, but nevertheless have what we might call several natural classes of 'truth-supporting circumstances.' So for instance, in the sentence:

    'We need a time-out.'

    as uttered to a child, has two broad classes of truth-supporting circumstances: first, we can require a time-out because what we're doing is too tough, and we need a break (a good thing) or because how the child is acting requires that s/he be isolated to calm down (a bad thing). To say 'I mean that in a good way' is not to impose some emotional valence on the original sentence, but to explicitly deny that the bad truth-supporting circumstances are in play. It's to elaborate, or to further refine the context set.

    I take it the joke in the Zits cartoon is funny because it's difficult to imagine a good set of truth-supporting circumstances for 'it smells like a wet sheepdog pizza with anchovies.' Since the question Jeremy asks presupposes that, we get a hilarious glimpse into the teenage mind. Or whatever.

  7. mara said,

    March 31, 2009 @ 4:03 pm

    "WITH ALL DUE RESPECT" invariably indicates that something negative is coming up. Weasel words.

  8. Brian said,

    March 31, 2009 @ 5:14 pm

    Another way I've heard those constructions used in recent years are as ways to turn innocuous phrases into sexual innuendo, though almost always in the negative–"she threatened to toss me out, and not in the good way," for example. Not the best example, admittedly, but I tend to draw blanks at inopportune times.

  9. Faith said,

    March 31, 2009 @ 5:30 pm

    I don't know what this reveals about my relationship, but my partner and I frequently quote the line from When Harry Met Sally:
    Sally: I'm overly structured and completely closed off
    Harry: But in a good way

  10. Breffni said,

    March 31, 2009 @ 6:52 pm

    To the extent that "in a good/bad way"-type phrases distinguish criticisms from compliments, etc., they could be considered a type of illocutionary force indicating device (IFID – Searle).

  11. acilius said,

    March 31, 2009 @ 7:33 pm

    Theophylact: That's a marvelous story. Something similar happened one day in 1950, when Alger Hiss was being questioned in preparation for the trial that would eventually send him to prison for perjury. Hiss denied that he had attended a particular party held some years before. After the prosecutor produced one sworn statement after another attesting that Alger Hiss had indeed been among the guests at that party, the prosecutor affected a helpful tone of voce and asked him "But perhaps it was another Alger Hiss?" Hiss welcomed this suggestion with great enthusiasm, failing to see the joke.

  12. misterfricative said,

    March 31, 2009 @ 9:05 pm

    @ Brian — 'I tend to draw blanks at inopportune times.'

    And not in a good way? fnarr fnarr.

    (Apart from a half-assed allusion to infertility, I'm not sure if this would-be innuendo actually means anything — is this an example of comedy as bluster? — but somehow it sounds so plausible that I had to post it. Sorry. )

  13. joseph palmer said,

    March 31, 2009 @ 11:12 pm

    It seems to me that if you look through the examples that come up on google then the phrase is usually used after something that clearly has a bad connotation in order to negate that connotation. This is usually absurd, and thus often a joke. There are, however, sometimes occasions where the word does in fact commonly have two different connotations, e.g "simple", and there is a reason to clarify which one is meant. I do not think there is any sense that the speaker genuinely has control over the connotations of words, the former situation is just a contrived pretence that the speaker is dealing with the latter situation.

    There are also examples like "humbling – but in a good way" which are really examples of people pointing out the positives of what is generally viewed as a bad situation rather than a real assertion that they have control over the "emotional valence" of the word. You could equally say "painful" in a good way.

  14. anon said,

    March 31, 2009 @ 11:21 pm

    In a slightly related way, there's always the forced-meaning mind-bender: http://xkcd.com/559/

  15. Dierk said,

    April 1, 2009 @ 3:18 am

    How about 'contextual modifier' or 'contextual qualifier', because that is what we are talking about when taking a phrase with a well-known, standard meaning and then make it mean the opposite. Often enough we don't even use the semantically modifying phrase at all, for instance in closed circles [family meaning, friend meaning] or face to face, whenwe have the chance to modify a meaning by facial expressions or gestures. The last one is typical for Jon Stewart.

    Since the modifying phrases are ironic most of the time, we could also go with 'ironic qualifier' or 'oppositional modifier', though the last one is a bit opaque.

  16. Nathan Myers said,

    April 1, 2009 @ 3:44 am

    Then we have

    http://www.starslip.com/archive/20090401.shtml

    I'm beginning to suspect the comic strip authors are reading LL. Probably the big webcomics convention has an award for "Most Language Log Placements". Heaven forfend Cathy wins it!

  17. Jon said,

    April 1, 2009 @ 6:27 am

    There was an example of this on the UK radio program, The News Quiz. The compere was getting impatient with the contestants, and said "My lips are pursed". Alan Coren replied "Pursed lips always remind me of a cat's behind….. But on you it looks great!".

  18. James Wimberley said,

    April 1, 2009 @ 6:46 am

    Mara suggests "weasel words" but that fails to catch real ambiguity, only hypocrisy. I suggest "Cerberus words"; the beast of the original myth had two or three heads (opinions varied).

  19. CS Clark said,

    April 1, 2009 @ 8:34 am

    There's also the 'But tell me what you really think' response to a rant which can either be friendly, suggesting the rant is a relatively rational statement compared with what hypothetically could have been said, or can emphasize the irrational nature of the rant.

  20. Arnold Zwicky said,

    April 1, 2009 @ 9:24 am

    mara: ""WITH ALL DUE RESPECT" invariably indicates that something negative is coming up. Weasel words."

    Well, it introduces some objection or correction, but that doesn't make it "weasel words". In many cases, it's just politeness. (Of course, like all politeness formulas, it can be used insincerely. That doesn't make it intrinsically insincere.)

  21. Irene said,

    April 1, 2009 @ 4:55 pm

    jfruh said: A gay friend of mine, riffing on the tendency of American teens to use "gay" as a synonym for "bad," once said, "That's so gay — and not in a good way."

    My teen aged son started to use gay in this way. It afforded me an opportunity to explain to him why I did not like his using gay to mean bad. And this always reminded me of Seinfeld's "Not that there's anything wrong with it."

    Faith – My partner and I always quote George Costanza's "I hate people" and Jerry Seinfeld's reply, "They're the worst."

  22. joseph palmer said,

    April 1, 2009 @ 9:01 pm

    If someone says "with all due respect" to you, then you need to brace yourself for a hard blow. I don't know that "polite" is quite the right description. It kind of implies that despite your high status you are an ass, and you are about to be told why. Who wants to hear it?

  23. comwave said,

    April 2, 2009 @ 2:02 am

    Agreed on the point that something unpleasant will come out. Not on the degree of hurting the listener's feeling. It may depend on how the speaker understands the listner's position, the situation, etc. Given that the use of the phrase premises some courtsey, it may contain some politeness in many cases.

  24. comwave said,

    April 2, 2009 @ 2:05 am

    Sorry, my comment was on "with all due respect."

  25. Roo said,

    April 2, 2009 @ 9:32 am

    And it keeps popping up in comics. Does this say something about pop culture in America?

  26. Jaimie said,

    April 2, 2009 @ 3:31 pm

    I agree that politeness is an important factor in regards to these statements. Perhaps the speaker really doesn't mean any offense, but after making a comment realizes that it could be understood as offensive.
    Socially these comments are very functional in "saving face," but are also very important in clarifying one's tone or intended purpose.

    "I mean this in the best possible way" can also function sarcastically as part of an insult.

    Just another example of how unspecific language really can be.

  27. Nathan Myers said,

    April 2, 2009 @ 5:12 pm

    Roo: As I noted above, it means the comix writers are all reading LL now.

  28. joseph palmer said,

    April 2, 2009 @ 7:40 pm

    The special thing about "with all due respect" is perhaps that it confers the right to judge on the speaker, and if you really want to be polite then other phrases are better.

    I think I have never said it, and that most people never would, just as most sensible people would never use "in a good way" in order to negate a negative thing without making a joke.

  29. Merri said,

    April 10, 2009 @ 7:55 am

    Reminds me of this exchange.

    - With all due respect, you're a hopeless purist.
    - Thanks.

    ('sauf ton respect, tu es un indécrottable puriste')

    Both of us did mean it.

    This shows once again that, in order to be efficient, stigmatizing somebody needs to be done according to that somebody's scale of values, not ours.

  30. Simone said,

    April 15, 2009 @ 6:27 am

    There's a German example from 1912 that I just found:
    "Ja, sagte die eine, und denken Sie, sie ist eine Berlinerin, aber wissen Sie, im guten Sinne des Wortes … "
    ("Yes" said one of them, "and think about it, she's a [female person from Berlin], but you know, in the good sense of the word…") (Kurt Tucholsky, Rheinsberg), which reminded me of the fact that there is a very similar German idiom "im wahr(st)en Sinne des Wortes" (in the true(st) sense of the word).

    A quick search in the digitales Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache des 20. Jahrhunderts (digital dictionary of German in the 20th century) shows that the first entry (out of 9) for im guten Sinne des Wortes is from 1914. There is also a variant, im positiven Sinne des Wortes, first mentioned in the corpus in 1900 (20th century corpus).
    The more frequent im besten Sinne des Wortes (in the best sense of the word) is first mentioned in 1902.
    Interestingly, the negative versions are not common at all: im schlechte(ste)n [bad/worst] Sinne des Wortes is only mentioned once (1972), and im negativen Sinne des Wortes doesn't occur at all.

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