New frontiers in multiple negation

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Dave Itzkoff, "Berkeley Breathed Publishes First New ‘Bloom County’ Strip Since 1989", 7/13/2015:

[I]t was a surprise for comics fans to wake up on Monday and discover that Berkeley Breathed, the Pulitzer Prize-winning creator and artist of “Bloom County,” had revived that vintage 1980s strip on his Facebook page after a hiatus of more than 25 years (depending on how one measures) and with almost no advance notice.

The advance notice consisted of a post  on July 12, showing a picture of the cartoonist working on a strip labelled "BLOOM COUNTY 2015" and showing Opus the penguin in the first panel, with the text "A return after 25 years. Feels like going home."

This dialogue followed:

Larry Warshall: Dear Mr. Breathed. With Donald Trump returning to the Political Spectrum, I believe it is only fitting. I have missed you guys.
Berkeley Breathed: This creator can't precisely deny that the chap you mention had nothing to do with it.

It's notoriously difficult to interpret phrases with multiple negations, so let's take it one layer at a time.

It might be that Donald Trump had nothing to do with Berkeley Breathed's decision to start up the strip again. Or Berkeley Breathed might deny that Donald Trump had nothing to do with the decision, in which case it would be clear that Trump's candidacy was a precipitating factor. But Breathed tells us that "this creator" can't precisely deny it. This might be because the causality is uncertain, or it might be because some other factor hinders the admission — in any case, the result hints at agreement without actually signing on to it.

And whether the first new strip deals covertly with Mr. Trump's candidacy is suitably unclear:

A creative use of the difficulty of untangling multiple negations.




  1. GH said,

    July 14, 2015 @ 8:09 am

    I don't think Breathed's response is meant to be parsed literally. He's writing it confusingly and evasively in order to jokingly suggest he's avoiding a straight answer, presumably to "maintain deniability." That in itself seems like a kind of "yes" (even if, when you count up the negations, it technically comes out closer to a no: a "he may have had nothing to do with it").

    Ack! Phphphbt!

    [(myl) What I said. Sorry not to have been, apparently, insufficiently unclear.]

  2. GH said,

    July 14, 2015 @ 8:22 am

    Ah! But hasn't the post been edited? I'm not hesitant to doubt that no part reads a little differently from what it may or may not have said when I first failed to avoid seeing it.

    Anyway, this seems relevant to the news, if not to the linguistic dimension:

    A Desperate Choice for Desperate Times!

  3. MP said,

    July 14, 2015 @ 9:36 am

    Without a doubt, I clearly interpreted Breathed's comment as a sort of negative concord, similar to "ain't nothing". To render its meaning one less negation:

    "This creator can't possibly deny [and say] that the chap you mention had nothing to do with it."


    "This creator can't possibly deny that the chap you mention had something to do with it."

    Since the Larry Warshall's comment asserts the comic's return DID have a causal relationship with Trump's candidacy, certainly Breathed's denial is in response to this assertion (i.e. deny that the comic had something to do with Trump). Additionally, the subject matter and the artist's contorted negation brings to mind a carefully-worded political statement, in which it is common for one to say someone or something "had nothing to do with it." In claiming that he cannot precisely make this denial, Breathed implies that there is more to it, essentially agreeing with the former statement. In this I agree with your analysis.

    As a little evidence, Google Ngrams lists "nothing to do with it" (0.0000639%) twice as frequent as "something to do with it" (0.0000292%) in recent usage. I suspect Mr. Breathed simply went with the more common turn of phrase.

  4. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 14, 2015 @ 10:45 am

    Incidentally, I'd hate to have to explain to someone learning English why you'd say "I can't deny that he had something to do with it", with "something", not "anything".

  5. bfwebster said,

    July 14, 2015 @ 2:19 pm

    Happened to sit and watch "Shrek 3" (or whatever its official title was) with the grandkids yesterday. There's a scene where Pinocchio is being queried (under threat) as to whether he knows where Shrek is. Thanks to the Wonder of the Interwebz, I can cited the exact text here:

    Prince Charming: You! You can't lie! So tell me puppet… where… is… Shrek?

    Pinocchio: Uh. Hmm, well, uh, I don't know where he's not.

    Prince Charming: You're telling me you don't know where Shrek is?

    Pinocchio: It wouldn't be inaccurate to assume that I couldn't exactly not say that it is or isn't almost partially incorrect.

    Prince Charming: So you do know where he is!

    Pinocchio: On the contrary. I'm possibly more or less not definitely rejecting the idea that in no way with any amount of uncertainty that I undeniably…

    Prince Charming: Stop it!

    Pinocchio: …do or do not know where he shouldn't probably be, if that indeed wasn't where he isn't. Even if he wasn't at where I knew he was.

    [Pigs and Gingerbread Man begin singing]

    Pinocchio: That'd mean I'd really have to know where he wasn't.

  6. DWalker said,

    July 14, 2015 @ 2:38 pm

    "Sorry not to have been … insufficiently unclear". I love that!

  7. Buzz said,

    July 14, 2015 @ 4:39 pm

    Something just occurred to me. If, as the first strip suggests, the continuity for the new strip includes only the original Bloom County (discounting Outland and Opus), Mr. Trump's brain should still be in the body of Bill the Cat. I wonder if Breathed is going to maintain that.

  8. David Morris said,

    July 14, 2015 @ 5:50 pm

    Is Mr Breathed's name a shibboleth among cartoon fans? I first mentally pronounced it as the past simple verb. Then I checked.

  9. Coby Lubliner said,

    July 14, 2015 @ 6:29 pm

    David Morris: You mean it isn't? I often used to wonder: what if Berkeley didn't breathe?

  10. David Morris said,

    July 14, 2015 @ 7:41 pm

    Cory: If you trust Wikipedia, it's /ˈbrɛðɨd/ BRETH-əd).

  11. Buzz said,

    July 15, 2015 @ 6:24 am

    I remember hearing him interviewed (way back at the height of Bloom County's popularity, in the late '80s), and the Wikipedia pronunciation of his name matches how he said it.

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