Anarthrous irony

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There's been a lot of discussion of what Joe Biden apparently said to Barack Obama at the HCR signing ceremony:

When he turns to the president, some combination of careful listening and lip-reading suggests that Biden said "((this is)) a big fucking deal".

I'm not interested in whether and how the FCC should get involved in the use of a taboo word on the air — or whether it matters that you need a good imagination to be sure that you heard it –  but rather in something about the part of the remark that remains if we leave the taboo word out.

As the OED tells us, "a big deal" (with or without the taboo intensifier) is an American expression for "Something considered important; a cause for excitement or concern."  But the phrase is also "Used as an ironical exclamation to express one's contempt for something regarded as impressive or  important by another person."

However, the contemptuous sense seems to be associated specifically with the exclamatory fragment "big deal", where the determiner is omitted.  That version can't be used predicatively: "This is big deal" might be the boast of a Russian who never mastered the English determiner system,  but it's not something that a native speaker would say "to express contempt for something regarded as impressive by another person".

Idiomatic contempt aside, the anarthrous exclamatory fragment "big deal" is syntactically regular, in that there are lots of other adjective+noun combinations used in a similar way. Some of them are also normally ironic, like "smooth move",  but most may be sincere: "good man", "nice try", "cute shoes", "great idea", …

There are always corresponding regular nouns phrases, like "a great idea" or "those cute shoes". But the idiomatic irony associated with "big deal" seems to be limited to the isolated exclamatory form — and in the same way, the isolated exclamatory form in that case seems to be only the ironic idiom.

Thus vice-president Biden said "((that's)) a big fucking deal", and, I imagine, meant it sincerely.  But if he'd said just "big fucking deal" it would have been a deflating attempt to subvert the moment.

The anarthrous exclamatory fragments are constrained in ways that are not entirely clear to me. For example, if you taste some soup with too much salt in it, you can certainly exclaim "wow, this soup is really salty!", but the anarthrous exclamative "salty soup!" doesn't seem to me to work.

Perhaps the exclamations are supposed to be at least nominally positive. Thus "tasty soup!" works, and "spicy soup!" seem appropriate if you like it that way, but not if you don't.  But "tough luck!", though expressing support for the victim, involves a negative judgment about the event.  I bet that someone has studied this.

The idiomatic irony of "big deal!" means that the valence constraint is inverted — you can safely say "big deal!" only to express contempt, not to express admiration.  Luckily for president Obama, vice-president Biden seems to have started his remark with "this is a…". Otherwise, the commentariat would be buzzing a different buzz.

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41 Comments »

  1. Army1987 said,

    March 27, 2010 @ 9:22 am

    "Perhaps the exclamations are supposed to be at least nominally positive." Well, stuff like "wrong answer!" doesn't seem anything like positive to me.

    [(myl) True. Not to speak of "bad dog!" and "big mistake!".]

  2. dan bloom said,

    March 27, 2010 @ 9:36 am

    And the Wall Street Journal next day ran photo of Obama signing the bill at desk and the caption to front page photo WSJ read: "BIG DEAL" — and then some words to explain the signing event…..

  3. MattF said,

    March 27, 2010 @ 9:48 am

    When I was in college (a long time ago) a friend of mine wrote a term paper for her introductory linguistics course on the question "Which is bigger: a 'big fucking truck' or a 'fucking big truck'". The best part of the research was that she got to go around and ask everyone she knew…

  4. J. Goard said,

    March 27, 2010 @ 10:27 am

    @MattF:

    Well, intonation would make a big fucking difference:

    (1) That's a fking BIG truck!
    (2) That's a FUCKing big TRUCK!

    (1) seems similar to big fucking truck. In (2), the truck is even bigger, or else the suggestion is that it's too big.

  5. mgh said,

    March 27, 2010 @ 10:34 am

    What we actually say — at least, what I say — is more like "Enh, big deal."

    Likewise, "Mm! Good soup!"

    Is it possible that the use of such phrases depends on having available a little sound effect syllable to precede them?

    So, "salty soup" doesn't really work since there's no sound effect for "salty" — although if I said "ech, salty soup" with some visual gagging cue I don't think it would seem too weird (depending on the dinner party).

  6. Meesher said,

    March 27, 2010 @ 11:47 am

    I don't think the WSJ example is subject to quite the same analysis, dan, since article deletion is a major feature of headlinese, of which captionese is doubtless a subset.

  7. KCinDC said,

    March 27, 2010 @ 11:48 am

    I don't think "Bad dog!" is the same sort of construction. It's addressed to the dog, so it's similar to "Idiot!" or "Good boy!" or "Fat pig!"

  8. Rob said,

    March 27, 2010 @ 11:49 am

    The irony in these statements can be explained by the pragmatic presuppositions that must be entailed for them to be interpreted as ironic. For example, "Hi, Mike–nice tie" stated sincerely is a compliment the understanding of which rests on the shared belief between speakers that ties can be "nice" (in the sense of positive evaluation, fashionable, etc.). Without this default (or preferred) implication, the ironic intonation of "Nice tie" which is a negative evaluation would not work. Irony relies on subverting expectations. Thus, "salty soup" seems awkward because it doesn't typically have highly positive connotation that can be made ironic, and even the negative evaluation (meaning that the soup is too salty) is not overly negative. Enough though that I think that among speakers who share the belief that salty soup is negative, you could taste the salty soup, smile, and say, "umm, salty soup" in an ironic way showing that it is too salty. On the other hand with a group of people who regard salty soup as a very good thing, you could taste the bland soup and say, "umm, salty soup" in an ironic way to show that it is not salty enough. The irony (or lack thereof) all depends on the shared pragmatic presuppositions and speech act entailments of the group of speakers.

  9. David Landowne said,

    March 27, 2010 @ 2:11 pm

    Perhaps it was in comparison to the New Deal and the Fair Deal from previous presidents

  10. D.O. said,

    March 27, 2010 @ 3:59 pm

    If the sound and the video are not misaligned, i don't see how's that possible to do lip-reading of what Biden's said, he's facing to the other side. That said, they probably are misaligned. Otherwise the mike would pick whatever Biden has said before he turned to the other side of Obama.

  11. JL said,

    March 27, 2010 @ 5:15 pm

    "Too bad" is another example where the isolated exclamatory form is exclusively ironic, or at least, insincere. In fact, I'm not sure if there is a sincere form, though in 19th cent. English "too bad" is, or can be, an indication of genuine sympathy.

  12. Brett said,

    March 27, 2010 @ 7:02 pm

    JL- I believe you are mistaken about "too bad." It certainly can be used sarcastically, but I use it sincerely all the time. I have always assumed that I was also able distinguish genuine from ironical uses by others.

  13. Cecily said,

    March 27, 2010 @ 7:07 pm

    @Matt F: What was the answer?

  14. JL said,

    March 27, 2010 @ 8:00 pm

    @Brett — Hmm. Interesting. Maybe I just run with a nastier crowd… I'm trying to hear it in my head with a sincere inflection and I can't quite get it — except perhaps in a more extended phrase like, "Oh, well that's too bad." And even there it seems to have a faint air of resignation, a suggestion that it isn't too bad at all, but simply more of the same old.

    This seems to me to be even more true of the phrase "too bad" used alone as an "exclamatory fragment". I can't hear it as being anything but — not sarcastic, exactly, but not quite sincere, either. That is, I hear it as expressing, not "how terribly, and unusually, unfortunate: my sincere condolences", but, roughly, "ain't it a bitch"?

    Can you unpack for me what, exactly, you mean when you say "too bad" sincerely?

  15. Clare K. R. Miller said,

    March 27, 2010 @ 10:16 pm

    @ JL – Oddly, I'm now trying to hear "too bad" used sarcastically as you describe, and I can't hear that. When I use "too bad" sincerely, it means something like "that wasn't unexpected, but I'm sorry it happened and I feel sympathy for you."

    I'm also puzzled by something in the OP: when is "nice try" ever used sincerely?

  16. Dennis Paul Himes said,

    March 27, 2010 @ 10:57 pm

    I've often heard and seen BFD as an abbreviation of "big fucking deal", usually with the assumption that the hearer or reader will understand its meaning without explanation, and always in the contemptuous sense.

    As far as trucks go, when I read MattF's post I thought, "That's easy, a fucking big truck is clearly bigger than a big fucking truck."

  17. Mark F. said,

    March 27, 2010 @ 11:27 pm

    Clare K. R. Miller — I can imagine someone saying "Nice try" when someone has just made a nice practice try at something they aren't expected to succeed at right away. I think I may have said that to my son when he attempted a basketball shot from outside his range and still hit the rim.

  18. Dan M. said,

    March 28, 2010 @ 1:34 am

    Am I the only one who finds the implausible versions without the article (like "salty soup!") uproariously funny? For me, it alternates between being some "complimentary" (and incomprehensibly suggestive "That's some salty soup you've got there! *Wiggle eyebrows.*") and a manic cry of pain leading to an anime-style rushing around screaming and ending with a (TVTropes warning!) sweat drop.

  19. C Thornett said,

    March 28, 2010 @ 2:38 am

    I think I would be more likely than not to say both 'Too bad' or 'Nice try' sincerely. 'Too bad!' can be an 'I'm listening' comment on another person's narrative or an expression of sympathy. 'Nice try' or 'Good try' are comments I might make to a student who has attempted something fairly difficult and hasn't completely succeeded.
    Do those of you who would only use these sarcastically have more empathetic replacements, or do your social and work groups generally disprefer sympathetic or empathetic expressions?

  20. JL said,

    March 28, 2010 @ 2:43 am

    @Clare K. R. Miller:

    "Hey, how much is a slice of pizza?"
    "Two dollars."
    "I only have a dollar-fifty."
    "Too bad. 2 bucks is the price."

    ——–

    "Mom, I don't feel like going to school today."
    "Too bad: we all have to do things we don't want to sometimes."

    ——-

    These are not sarcastic, exactly, but they're not sincere expressions of empathy, either. They seem to me to be, roughly, less confrontational ways of saying, "Tough shit."

  21. Will said,

    March 28, 2010 @ 9:38 am

    JL, 'too bad" can mean "c'est la vie", as in the examples you gave, but it can also be an expression of sympathy, as in:

    A: "I can't make it to the game this weekend, I have to work."
    B: "Too bad. Maybe next time."

    I don't think I use the phrase "too bad" at all, but if I were to use it, it would definitely be in the sympathetic sense. And in any case, I've heard both forms. It's obvious which form is being used, both from the context and from the intonation pattern and perhaps also the preceding noise that mgh talked about.

    I think a similar analysis can be applied to "nice try".

    And a fucking big truck is definitely bigger than a big fucking truck.

  22. Will said,

    March 28, 2010 @ 9:43 am

    Actually, re-reading that, I guess "c'est la vie" is also frequently used sympathetically — I think your idea of "ain't it a bitch" hits the mark better. But the main point of my post was the latter part — that the phrase is sometimes used to mark sympathy. Well that, and that a fucking big truck is really fucking big.

  23. MattF said,

    March 28, 2010 @ 10:51 am

    @Cecily

    Don't know what the final answer was– but my guess is that it was a variation on "it depends."

  24. Tom Recht said,

    March 28, 2010 @ 1:01 pm

    Perhaps the exclamations are supposed to be at least nominally positive.
    I think they're supposed to be not necessarily positive, but explicitly evaluative: thus "nice", "tough", "bad", "mistake", etc., but not "salty".

  25. JL said,

    March 28, 2010 @ 1:34 pm

    @Will: I obviously can't assert that people don't say what they claim they say, but to me, your exchange would more naturally go:

    "I can't make it to the game this weekend. I have to work."
    "Oh, that's too bad, maybe next time."

    Certainly, if someone were to say to me, simply "Too bad, maybe next time", I would take it as being, at the very least, faintly dismissive. Consider this variation:

    "I can't make it to my mother's funeral"
    "Too bad."

    vs.

    "I can't make it to my mother's funeral."
    "Oh, that's too bad."

    Doesn't the second one sound more appropriate?

    This brings it closer to Liberman's example of "big deal": the longer versions are 'sincere', and the exclamatory versions are not, or are less so.

  26. Michael W said,

    March 28, 2010 @ 5:14 pm

    "Salty soup!" reminds me of the young boy in Stephen King's short story "The Jaunt". Driven insane, he keeps repeating the phrase "Long Jaunt!". Perhaps a soup that is insanely salty might give rise to such inarticulate expressions.

  27. Kylopod said,

    March 28, 2010 @ 9:32 pm

    Well, stuff like "wrong answer!" doesn't seem anything like positive to me.

    [(myl) True. Not to speak of "bad dog!" and "big mistake!".]

    You both raise an interesting point: sarcastic inversion seems to be used only to turn positive expressions into negative ones, never the other way around. That is, if someone says "What a great day!" there's a possibility he means he had a terrible day, but if the person says "What a terrible day!" you can be pretty sure it was not a great day for that person. You don't sarcastically say something negative when you mean something positive, because the purpose of sarcasm is to attack or ridicule. To use another example: our language has the sarcastic expression "Yeah, right," but has no equivalent expression "Nah, wrong."

  28. Jon said,

    March 28, 2010 @ 10:46 pm

    I have to disagree with kylopod. Among my friends, it's not uncommon at all to, sarcastically, when asked a question to
    which I want to respond "positively," respond with a strong "negative" statement. However, this usually requires that the answer is obvious. For instance:

    "How was your wedding?"
    "It was fucking miserable dude."

    If the answer is not obvious, then the false "negative" is employed as a sort of short term practical joke, usually accompanied by a faint smile until the unwitting victim
    catches the real meaning. I'm not sure that these qualify as "sarcasm," but I do think
    one cannot make such a far reaching statement about it's use.

  29. Kylopod said,

    March 29, 2010 @ 12:19 am

    I was actually waiting for someone to challenge me on this. I couldn't think of any examples of negative-to-positive sarcasm, but I had a feeling there might be some. The example you give is, I believe, what might be called the "No, duh" type of reply, where you highlight the stupidity of someone's question by offering an intentionally absurd answer. I remember Mad Magazine getting into this genre ("Is that a zebra?" "No, it's an escaped convict horse"). It is indeed a form of sarcasm, I believe, but I'm not sure it really turns a negative into a positive–that may be the apparent outcome in your particular example, but it isn't really the mechanism. What I mean is, while this type of comeback does require contradicting the questioner, and often begins with the word "No," it doesn't have to be a declaration of what's bad or terrible. It could be, but the focus is on how the answer conflicts with common sense, nothing more.

    (If what I just wrote confused anyone, cut me some slack: it's late at night.)

  30. Adouma said,

    March 29, 2010 @ 2:06 am

    @Kylopod

    I think there's two different sarcastic responses that can be read into Jon's example.
    One is "it was my wedding, of course it was good," which is the one you're seeing. This, I think, is more of a mockery of the questioner; as you said, "no duh."

    The other is along the lines of a reverse intensifier. There's a pretty good chance that the wedding was on the positive end of the spectrum, so the answer of 'good' or 'bad' is irrelevant – we can take it as given that it was good. So in this case, only the strength of the statement makes a difference: "fucking miserable" is functionally identical to "fucking amazing."
    This second meaning doesn't mock the questioner, and conveys a much more positive attitude generally. Maybe even more positive than just saying "it was amazing," because of the implication that it was so amazing that there's no reason to say it was.

    Perhaps a better example of that would be when someone is digging into a meal, and pauses between mouthfuls to say "God, this is disgusting." It's sort of Dad-humour, but apart from being corny it's also unequivocally positive.

  31. Ginger Yellow said,

    March 29, 2010 @ 5:31 am

    "To use another example: our language has the sarcastic expression "Yeah, right," but has no equivalent expression "Nah, wrong.""

    Interestingly enough, the schoolboy slang of Winchester College (as it was 15 years ago, anyway, and it's durable enough to have been published in books) does have both expressions. "Yoy" means "yeah, right", whereas "noy" means "nah, wrong" (in an equivalently ironic sense).

  32. Ginger Yellow said,

    March 29, 2010 @ 5:34 am

    Hey, it's even on Wikipedia, though spelled as "yoi" and "noi", which doesn't seem right to me.

  33. Eneri Rose said,

    March 29, 2010 @ 8:39 am

    To me, adding “just” indicates irony/negativity. “That’s too bad” is sincere. “That’s just too bad” is ironic. And prefacing with “well”, increases the negativity. “Well, that’s just too bad.”

    These also apply to “great”.
    That’s great. (sincere)
    That’s just great. (ironic)
    Well, that’s just great. (Hear Elaine Benes.)
    Regarding “Yeah, right”, I think the equivalent in the negative is “WRONG!”, or making the sound of a buzzer.

  34. Kylopod said,

    March 29, 2010 @ 8:47 am

    So in this case, only the strength of the statement makes a difference: "fucking miserable" is functionally identical to "fucking amazing."

    I really am not familiar with that mechanism. At least I can't remember ever hearing it in my own life. Might it have anything to do with how the slang use of "bad" (Michael Jackson sense) arose? My guess is that was irony, but not sarcasm.

    Regarding “Yeah, right”, I think the equivalent in the negative is “WRONG!”, or making the sound of a buzzer.

    It's only equivalent if "WRONG!" is taken to mean "correct."

  35. Jon said,

    March 29, 2010 @ 11:16 am

    I think that Adouma really clarified the situation here. In all honesty my example was pretty sad (not literally though). I am familiar with the mechanism he discussed though. However, for some reason I feel that it specifically applies to things that are gustatory, or perhaps more broadly visceral (maybe even sexual?). That is, I could most certainly see someone gluttonously stuffing their face and looking up to say "This is so disgusting." I think that this mechanism makes sense to me because while what you mean on the surface is that what you're eating is delicious, you're also commenting on the fact that the fashion in which you're enjoying is a little bit disgusting, perhaps specifically having a relation with the cardinal sins.

    Without being graphic, I think that I could also imagine this mechanism being used in a sexual fashion, i.e. during sex, "You're so disgusting." This isn't something I would really say, but it makes a strange sort of sense.

    I know I'm not really being clear, but does this ring true to you(s) at all?

  36. Private Zydeco said,

    March 29, 2010 @ 1:40 pm

    "This is a Big Fucking Piece of Orange Peel."

  37. Anne Onymous said,

    March 29, 2010 @ 2:51 pm

    Couldn't "No way" function as the inverse of "Yeah, right"?

  38. Jim F said,

    March 29, 2010 @ 4:07 pm

    I would say that "no way" just indicates (rhetorical) disbelief that the good thing is true rather than any kind of irony.

  39. Anne Onymous said,

    March 29, 2010 @ 4:31 pm

    Jim F — In some situations, that's probably true (e.g. if it's in response to somebody announcing that they just won an important prize). But I've also used and heard others use "No way" to indicate that what somebody just said is obvious.

    I was referring to the second use in my previous post. This use is more analogous to "Yeah, right" (or at least the use of "Yeah, right" mentioned by Kylopod, as I understand it) because "Yeah, right" is not used to express disbelief that a bad thing is true or belief that a good thing is true; it is used to mock the first speaker for stating something obviously false. "No way" can be used to mock the first speaker for saying something that is obviously true.

  40. oliver said,

    March 29, 2010 @ 4:45 pm

    "Salty soup!" seems all right to me, in that I can imagine exclaiming it, and that by my intonation anybody would recognize the form. Does the alleged problem with "Salty soup!" apply as well with a tonal cue, as in "Salty soup, Dude!" or "Fucking salty soup!" ?

  41. J. Goard said,

    March 30, 2010 @ 1:32 am

    @Kylopod:

    Your point is well taken, but isn't ironically positive reading of a (locally) negative predicate perfectly compatible with mockery or ridicule at some higher level? Here, B is ironically praising Hawking, in the service of mocking A:

    A: Nobody agrees with your claims about physics.
    B: Yeah, just some guy named Hawking, but he's a fucking idiot.

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