Really?!

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My son, Tom, who is closely attuned to current speech mannerisms, explained to me the nuances of a particular way of saying "really" that conveys both incredulousness and disapprobation.  It's not the same as the rhetorical "really?" with rising intonation, but ends with a slightly falling intonation, or is nearly flat.  It means something like "you're not really going to do that, are you?" or, "you are dummmmb, and I do not approve."

Here's the situation in which we heard "really?!" yesterday evening.  We were at the Cooper Fitness Center at Craig Ranch, McKinney, Texas. Before we went in the 180º sauna for fifteen minutes, Tom and I staked out two shower stalls by putting the following on the benches in front of them:  towels, soap, lavender scented salt scrub, and two cute clementines.

A man walked by, looked at the items we had arrayed on the benches, and — with an air of hauteur and dismissal — uttered this single word:  "really?!" Now mind you, there were plenty of other available shower stalls. I didn't know what he meant by that or why he said it, but Tom knew right away that it was meant as a mild put-down.  "You're going to eat those cuties in this men's locker room?!"  All of the actors in this mini-drama were unclothed, so that added to the poignancy of the man's laconic derision.

Words may mean many different things depending upon context and tone of voice.



44 Comments

  1. Joe Horton said,

    December 27, 2016 @ 5:14 pm

    I've skied in the west. And I've seen people out there wearing T-shirts that said

    "If God meant for Texans to ski, he'd have made b******t white." This would sorta go along with that sentiment.

    [I'm new to this blog, so I didn't spell it out. I'm sure readers will fill in the *'s.]

  2. Rod Johnson said,

    December 27, 2016 @ 5:16 pm

    I am… not sure why clementines would be a problem. Is there a no eating in locker rooms rule? Or a no dibs on shower stalls rule?

  3. Matt H said,

    December 27, 2016 @ 5:30 pm

    Perhaps the prototypical example from pop culture:
    http://www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live/video/weekend-update-really/n12109?snl=1

  4. John from Cincinnati said,

    December 27, 2016 @ 5:31 pm

    I agree, "really" with slightly falling intonation can convey incredulous disbelief. But that use of intonation to reverse surface meaning is hardly new. Replay in your mind the ancient joke where the professor says that in English a double negative forms a positive, but that a double positive never expresses a negative, to which a voice in the back pipes up "yeah, sure." To my ear, that "yeah, sure" is delivered with the referenced intonation.

  5. More Cowbell said,

    December 27, 2016 @ 5:34 pm

    Seth Meyers and Amy Poehler did a series of "Really" sketches on SNL's Weekend Update.

  6. Mark said,

    December 27, 2016 @ 5:39 pm

    The intonation you described reminds me of the old Saturday Night Live "Weekend Update" recurring segment called "Really!?!" that started in 2006. In the clip below you can hear a couple of "reallys" that sound like questions with rising intonations, as well as some of the dismissive sort you detailed. http://www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live/video/really-with-seth-and-amy/n12166?snl=1

  7. Kimberly Temple said,

    December 27, 2016 @ 5:48 pm

    My 6-year-old daughter is an absolute master of this usage

  8. Riikka said,

    December 27, 2016 @ 6:00 pm

    I can't read asterisks.

    Could someone explain me the concept of child-proofing specific words in texts, especially in ones that aren't being directed to toddlers or pre-teens? I would understand cussing with all symbols (#%&!), but leaving some letters untouched implies that the author does want the reader to understand the word while keeping their own conscience clean. So is it all about the author's own (real or faked) beliefs contradicting using cuss-words and anything that liken them, does this usage convey assumptions about the readers' age or tolerance level, the forum's rules, or is it just a habit, something one does just because everyone else does it, too?

    I'm honestly curious. I've seen this ****** habit spread to Finnish evening newspaper articles, and it looks doubly ridiculous there. I wish people would decide which words they want to use (and which not) and then stick to that.

  9. Riikka said,

    December 27, 2016 @ 6:01 pm

    The above was a comment to Joe Horton's comment on the top, of course. Sorry for derailing.

  10. Ben Zimmer said,

    December 27, 2016 @ 6:06 pm

    We had some discussion of "really?!" back in 2010, when Mark Liberman posted a commercial for the Windows Phone 7 featuring a few examples of the interjection. (See the comments, which include mentions of the SNL Weekend Update bit, back to 2007.)

  11. Matt Keefe said,

    December 27, 2016 @ 6:07 pm

    Yeah, words often mean something different when everyone's naked.

  12. Mara K said,

    December 27, 2016 @ 6:18 pm

    Are you sure it wasn't a comment on the feminine-coded practice of washing with lavender-scented salt scrub?

  13. Norman said,

    December 27, 2016 @ 6:23 pm

    Think others have posted about SNL's Really?!?! Segment. That's what immediately came to mind.

    https://youtu.be/KmEoKXgBvSI

  14. Joe Horton said,

    December 27, 2016 @ 6:50 pm

    Reply to Rikka:

    bullshit

  15. Stephen Hart said,

    December 27, 2016 @ 7:18 pm

    Riikka said,
    "I can't read asterisks."

    I don't think Riikka was asking *what* the obscured word was, but *why* obscure it in the first place.
    I think this practice is to avoid automated internet blocking of obscene or otherwise frowned-upon words.

  16. pat barrett said,

    December 27, 2016 @ 7:28 pm

    Once I wrote a series of posts to a listserv titled "something something for the hardcore" and it wouldn't go through. It took me while to figure out it was the word 'hardcore'. This can get silly but if you've ever been the target of an outraged prude…. well, recently a book club I belonged to had a book selection rejected by a member who was "offended" by salacious content. Everyone in the club is over 50. Personally, I love salacious.

  17. Brian said,

    December 27, 2016 @ 7:54 pm

    Though it should be noted that the SNL sketch leaned much more heavily on the rising-intonation version of "really?!", which is very much different from the flatter, laconic version that Victor is describing. The former is almost entirely an expression of incredulity, and doesn't have the disappropriation that is the hallmark of the latter. The latter is almost chiding in its tone (and in fact one of the most purest expressions of it I've heard is a single mom addressing her toddler, with whom she knows she cannot reason with, yet whose behavior cannot bring herself to completely let slide).

  18. Victor Mair said,

    December 27, 2016 @ 8:17 pm

    It may have begun as a marketing ploy a few years ago, but many people now refer to clementines as "cuties", which doesn't quite fit in a men's locker room.

  19. Keith said,

    December 28, 2016 @ 3:54 am

    I'd never encountered the word "cuties" as a synonym for "clementines" before. I wonder if Americans pronounce the "u" and "t" in "cuties" as they often do in "duty". If they do, it would make "cuties" a homophone for "cooties".

    Oh, and @Joe Horton, how do you sky in the west?

  20. Aristotle Pagaltzis said,

    December 28, 2016 @ 4:47 am

    Of course, the OG of “really?!” was Jerry Seinfeld.

  21. Brian said,

    December 28, 2016 @ 7:49 am

    Of course I knew this but didn't really know this until I thought about it. Thanks. And I thought tonality was the exclusive province of Sinitic languages.

  22. Mike said,

    December 28, 2016 @ 8:23 am

    As an aside, I wonder whether the disparagement was not intended as a comment on the notion of staking out (i.e. rendering unavailable) two shower stalls for some indefinite time–? I say this as a resident of a city that sees yearly fighting in the media about the habit by some people of putting out a lawn chair or other claim days in advance along the route of (e.g.) the Fourth of July parade.

  23. Mr Punch said,

    December 28, 2016 @ 8:32 am

    "Cuties" is a brand name for clementines and other small-orange-related products. I believe cuties are from California, so they may well be prevalent in the western US. On the east coast we also see clementines imported from Spain and North Africa (where they originated).

  24. Amy Stoller said,

    December 28, 2016 @ 8:52 am

    I think “seriously” can take the same treatment as “really.”

    @Keith, FWIW, I’ve never heard “cutie” pronounced without the yod in American speech. That’s something I’d associate with East Anglia.

    In the case of citrus fruit, I think Cutie is a brand name.

  25. Victor Mair said,

    December 28, 2016 @ 10:04 am

    Calling a clementine a "cuty" is like calling a Chinese gooseberry a "kiwi". My friends and relatives in Dallas don't talk about clementines; to them, those delicious little citrus fruits are cuties.

    BTW, there were about twenty other empty shower stalls in the men's locker room that evening, though in retrospect I have to admit that the two my son and I staked out were superior in the sense that you could see them through the glass door of the sauna that we went into before taking our shower.

  26. Amy Stoller said,

    December 28, 2016 @ 10:18 am

    @Victor Mair: "Calling a clementine a ‘cuty' is like calling a Chinese gooseberry a ‘kiwi'. My friends and relatives in Dallas don't talk about clementines; to them, those delicious little citrus fruits are cuties.”

    Now that is something I did not know. And do you always spell the singular cuty? For me, it’s cutie.

    I wonder if that’s how the brand name came about. http://cutiescitrus.com/products/

  27. Robert Coren said,

    December 28, 2016 @ 10:25 am

    @Riika: As Joe Horton noted, he's new to Language Log, and therefore presumably uncertain about local customs with respect to "strong" language. If he'd been around for a while, he'd have known that commenters here generally say whatever the fuck they please.

  28. cameron said,

    December 28, 2016 @ 11:59 am

    I've been seeing the Cuties brand clementines in grocery stores for years, but I've never heard the term used as a genericized trademark. I'm in New York City.

  29. joelluber said,

    December 28, 2016 @ 12:22 pm

    @Keith "I wonder if Americans pronounce the "u" and "t" in "cuties" as they often do in "duty". If they do, it would make "cuties" a homophone for "cooties"."

    Not quite, for me at least. "Cute" (and therefore "cutie") has a yod while "cooties" does not. ("Duty" doesn't have a yod for me, but I think it does for some Americans.)

  30. Terry Hunt said,

    December 28, 2016 @ 12:36 pm

    @ Brian
    I suspect that tonality in, say, English may be more fundamental to meaning than actual vocabulary. It's perfectly possible (as I have observed and practised on innumerable occasions) to hold a (non-technical) conversation in which the majority of the utterances are non verbal sounds with appropriate tones, etc. (aka paralanguage).

    I've never tried to learn a Sinitic tonal language (having long forgotten the smattering of Cantonese I picked up as a 6-7-y-o in Hong Kong), and it seems to me that this ingrained use of tonality in my own language might be the greatest barrier to doing so.
    I've also sometimes wondered what such paralinguistic use of tones might imply for the origins of human speech itself.

  31. Linda Seebach said,

    December 28, 2016 @ 12:39 pm

    When I was in grad school I worked for the student newspaper, and one day a brand-new reporter handed in a story in which he had modestly written f**k (in a quote). During the line edit I replaced the asterisks and he said, disbelieving, "Can we say that?" I asked "In a *student* newspaper?" and showed him how to search our online archive.

  32. Victor Mair said,

    December 28, 2016 @ 1:54 pm

    @Terry Hunt:

    "I've also sometimes wondered what such paralinguistic use of tones might imply for the origins of human speech itself."

    This reminds me of communication by whistling, which we have covered in this post:

    "Transcendent Tonality" (11/5/15)

  33. L said,

    December 28, 2016 @ 4:50 pm

    Chinese gooseberries are not the same as the commercially grown kiwifruit. Kiwifruit were bred by New Zealanders from Chinese gooseberries into the fruit they are now, and the commercial variety is now very different to the smaller, furrier Chinese gooseberry. The kiwi is a bird not a fruit.

    Calling a kiwifruit a Chinese gooseberry is more like calling a clementine an orange.

    (And in NZ, any small, peelable orange is a mandarin! And would never be considered an orange.)

  34. Victor Mair said,

    December 28, 2016 @ 5:18 pm

    Recommended reading on the history and nomenclature of things called kiwi:

    kiwi (the bird)

    kiwi (the fruit)

    kiwi (the people)

    I don't know anyone who refers to the fruit as kiwifruit. Everybody just calls it "kiwi".

    There are lots of other things called "kiwi", including shoe polish.

    The same as with "cuty" for clementines (discussed in this recent post and its comments, "kiwi" is a genericized marketing term for Chinese gooseberries.

  35. Cervantes said,

    December 28, 2016 @ 5:42 pm

    I don't know anyone who refers to the fruit as kiwifruit. Everybody just calls it "kiwi".

    Behold the California Kiwifruit Commission.

    Personally, I use "kiwi fruit" (two words) and "kiwi" interchangeably.

    I've seen and heard all three forms in various places at various times but have not noticed any pattern to the distribution.

  36. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 29, 2016 @ 10:36 am

    Riikka: In addition to Stephen Hart's answer on profanity-blocking software, I believe the asterisks are based on the assumption that some people find profanities unpleasant but partly asterisked profanities less so. I think that assumption is correct, though I don't have any data. In keeping with the setting of this post, I'll compare the difference to someone clothed in an office who you've previously seen naked in a sauna. You know what the clothes conceal, but you still might prefer not to see it in that setting.

    On that subject, it's clear that the Libermans should just have brought bigger oranges. No one in a locker room could object to seeing navels.

  37. Ray said,

    December 29, 2016 @ 11:41 am

    and then there's "rilly"

  38. Amy Stoller said,

    December 29, 2016 @ 3:47 pm

    @Victor 'I don't know anyone who refers to the fruit as kiwifruit. Everybody just calls it "kiwi”.’

    Not everybody. When I was a kid we called them Chinese gooseberries, and then learned to call them kiwi fruit.

    For context, in case it matters, I’m a native New Yorker, and a product of the tail end of the baby boom.

  39. Victor Mair said,

    December 29, 2016 @ 5:25 pm

    "Everybody just calls it 'kiwi'.” That is in the context of the sentence it follows: "I don't know anyone who refers to the fruit as kiwifruit".

  40. Jayarava said,

    December 30, 2016 @ 12:03 pm

    "I can't read asterisks."

    Me neither, but some has explained it now. Many newspaper comment sections won't allow any swear words. I was denied for using bullsh*t yesterday. It was the most appropriate word I could think of, but my disguise wasn't good enough.

  41. Jayarava said,

    December 30, 2016 @ 12:17 pm

    @Victor 'I don't know anyone who refers to the fruit as kiwifruit. Everybody just calls it "kiwi”.’

    Growing up in New Zealand we always called ourselves Kiwis and the fruit kiwifruit. The name was invented to distance ourselves from communist China in 1959. The official govt website history of them refers to them as kiwifruit: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/the-chinese-gooseberry-becomes-the-kiwifruit So I take it that the full name is still common back home.

    Also, we called the birds kiwis as well, though context usually made it clear which was which. We called the shoe polish, "shoe polish".

  42. Robot Therapist said,

    December 31, 2016 @ 6:02 pm

    srsly?

  43. philip said,

    January 2, 2017 @ 7:41 pm

    I'm with Mike on the reason for the approbation: it is the unlawful act of reserving shower stalls which are meant to be used on a first-come-first-served basis. Similar to towels on empty sunbeds in hotels.

  44. philip said,

    January 2, 2017 @ 7:41 pm

    Doh! But I have used the word 'approbation' incorrectly … again!

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