According to a press release posted yesterday by Michael Eisen on the NY Giants web site, the team has released Plaxico Burress, the wide receiver who famously shot himself in the leg at a nightclub. Eisen cites the player's achievements:
Burress is perhaps best known for catching the game-winning touchdown pass in the Giants’ upset victory over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. He eluded Patriots cornerback Ellis Hobbs with an inside move, then ran to the outside, where he caught Eli Manning’s 13-yard throw with 35 seconds remaining in the game. Burress had two receptions in the Super Bowl, catching Manning’s first and last passes of the game.
In his four years with the Giants Burress caught 344 passes, which places him 12th on the franchise’s career list, one catch ahead of Earnest Gray and three behind Aaron Thomas. Burress had 3,681 receiving yards and caught 33 touchdown passes for the Giants.
And then he quotes the coach:
“Plaxico’s contribution to our championship season in 2007 can never be underestimated or undervalued,” said Head Coach Tom Coughlin.
This is a fine example of an issue that we've discussed many times — see here for a summary and some links. And Plaxico is not the only person in recent news reports and press releases whose contributions cannot, can't or can never be underestimated. At the 2009 Eaton Science Fiction Conference, for example,
"We are really delighted to be able to host an Eaton conference with this emphasis on Jules Verne,” said Melissa Conway, head of Special Collections and Archives at UCR. “Verne’s influence – right up to the present day – cannot be underestimated."
And a discussion of Michael Jackson's comeback tour in the U.K. tells us that "his drawing power can’t be underestimated". I knew about Jules Verne and Michael Jackson, but not about Cindy Sherman, though Alexis Loinaz tells me here that "Cindy's prowess just can't be underestimated"
In fact, the sum of Google News hits for "cannot be underestimated" (219) "can't be underestimated" (112) and "can never be underestimated" (256) is 587, and without checking them all, I'll be that they all mean "must not be underestimated" or "cannot be overestimated". This compares to 40 for the logically correct "cannot be overestimated" (29) "can't be overestimated" (9) and "can never be overestimated" (2); or 18 for "must not be underestimated" (17) "mustn't be underestimated" (1) and "must never be underestimated" (0). The only logically sound alternative that's competitive is "should not be underestimated" (618) "shouldn't be underestimated" (54) and "should never be underestimated" (46), which wins out in this morning's count by a mere 718 to 587.
Does this mean that "cannot be underestimated" should be considered an idiom, like "still unpacked", "fail to miss", and "could care less"? I don't think so, at least not exactly. One problem is that the same pattern applies to "impossible to underestimate", "hard to underestimate", "difficult to underestimate"; to "cannot understate", "cannot undervalue", "cannot underrate"; and so on. In the other direction, expressions like "should not be overestimated" are also often used to say the opposite what they literally mean. Whenever we combine negation, concepts of possibility or difficulty, and thresholds on a scale of evaluation, people seem to get their wires crossed in the same way.
Some people argue that all these examples are logically correct – that is, they actually do mean what their authors intend them to mean – if you only analyze their semantics in the right way. I incline towards the "poor monkey brains" theory myself.
[Please read this, at least, before commenting.]