"On notice," as meaningless as ever

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Donald Trump, conducting foreign policy by tweet, announced that "Iran has been formally PUT ON NOTICE for firing a ballistic missile." National Security Advisor Mike Flynn reiterated that point at a news conference, though press secretary Sean Spicer was unable to explain what "on notice" actually means in this context. Could be because in diplomacy, putting a country "on notice" is not actually a thing.

The use of "on notice" did not go unnoticed by Stephen Colbert, who, in his "Late Show" monologue last night, accused Donald Trump of stealing the old "on notice" bit that he used to do on his Comedy Central show, "The Colbert Report." Fans of that show will recall Colbert, in his blustery conservative talk-show persona, would put the names of people and entities on an "On Notice" board for various slights, real or imagined.

It's been quite a while since the "On Notice" board has made an appearance, but I was delighted to see that Michael Adams is still on it. Longtime Language Log readers may remember that 11 years ago, Colbert (in his Comedy Central persona) got incensed about the American Dialect Society selecting truthiness as 2005 Word of the Year without giving him proper credit for his coinage. But it was really an Associated Press report on the WOTY vote that was to blame — the article quoted ADS member Michael Adams (now an English professor at Indiana University Bloomington) giving a definition of truthiness that didn't mention Colbert, even though his use of the term was the reason the ADS selected it in the first place. (I know this because I was there. Five years later, I talked to Colbert — the real one — about the truthiness kerfuffle for a New York Times "On Language" column. You can read the full interview here.)

In any case, the AP article gave Colbert an excuse to put Michael Adams ON NOTICE, as I reported on Language Log at the time. Here's the clip, from the Jan. 9, 2006 show.

Let's compare the "On Notice" board, then and now.

He's been moved down the board, but I'm glad to see Michael is still holding strong. (That's more than can be said for Mike Huckabee, who got ousted in favor of Trump.) And as Colbert said last night, being put on the board has exactly the same effect as Trump putting Iran on notice: zero.


  1. maidhc said,

    February 3, 2017 @ 11:56 pm

    It sounds like something a high-school vice-principal would say.

    The next time they have a spat with Iran, they could try "This will go on your permanent record!"

  2. Victor Mair said,

    February 5, 2017 @ 11:01 am

    In this context, "on notice" means something like a literal "trigger warning".

    "Ron Paul: Iran ‘On Notice’ – Will Trump Pull The Trigger?"

    Daniel McAdams


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