We can't be second to none

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An interesting misnegation was broadcast today on NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday, in a segment under the title "Exactly How Do We Go Forth and Innovate".  Liane Hansen quoted president Obama's SOTU passage about innovation and leadership in science and technology, including the phrase "Well, I do not accept second place for the United States of America".

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And she asked Rob Atkinson of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, "The president referred to innovation several times in his speech. What did you think? Was there anything new there?"

His response began:

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There wasn't a- a lot new there,  I think I- I- what I was most impressed with was when he said "we can't be second to none".

To be "second to none" is to have no superiors. And so if we can't be second to none, then we must have at least one superior — we can't be in first place, or even tied for first place. Rather, we must be in second place, or in some lower place. So literally, what Mr. Atkinson said is inconsistent with what he (and president Obama) meant.

Among the four main causes of misnegation, this is most likely a case of #1, the principle that Larry Horn calls Multiplex negatio ferblondiat: our poor monkey brains just can't deal with complex combinations of certain logical operators.

However, it's also possible that cause #3 is also playing a role here: negative concord is alive and well in English. That's certainly what's happening in the chorus of Jeannie Ortega's song Crowded:

I don't know what you been thinking about me
Did you think this was gonna be that easy?
Hell no, you must be going crazy!
Why don't you get out of my life,
Get out of my sight,
Get off of my back.

Why don't you get back to your world,
Go back to your girl,
I think you owe her.

I know what's going on
I won't be second to none.

Back off 'cause you're crowding my space,
You need to get out of my face.

"I won't be second to nobody" would be the normal way to say "I won't be second to anybody", in the varieties of English that enforce negative concord, and it's natural enough for someone to re-interpret the common collocation "second to none" as involving a more formal instance of the same phrase.

Jeannie Ortega, or whoever wrote Crowded? Sure.  Rob Atkinson? Unlikely.

[Hat tip to Jonathan Lundell.]


  1. John Cowan said,

    January 31, 2010 @ 5:57 pm

    To be second to none is not to be first. If you are first, you have no equals (which is what gives the phrase first among equals its slightly paradoxical feeling), but if you are (only) second to none, you may and often do have equals. Consider this sentence from Bruce Schneier's book Applied Cryptography:

    [Organizations] can write their own [cryptographic] algorithms, based on the belief that their cryptographic ability is second to none, and that they should trust nobody but themselves.

    The belief attributed to these organizations is that they have no superiors, not that they are necessarily superior to everyone else.

    [(myl) OK, right. The post is now edited to reflect this. It remains true that Mr. Atkinson's phrase has one too many negatives — he meant something like "we can't be second to anyone", not "we can't be second to none".]

  2. Faldone said,

    January 31, 2010 @ 6:49 pm

    And he said it twice.

  3. Dan Lufkin said,

    January 31, 2010 @ 6:53 pm

    Rhetorically the phrase works if you give it a shove in the right direction first: "If we roll up our sleeves, if we unleash our talent for innovation, then we can be SECOND TO NONE!" [applause].

    [(myl) Sure, if by "give it a shove in the right direction" you also mean "remove one of the negatives"…]

  4. Dan Lufkin said,

    January 31, 2010 @ 7:07 pm

    Umm, actually, er, that's what I should have meant by "rhetorically" if I had engaged my brain before hitting the Submit button. [blush]

  5. Bobbie said,

    January 31, 2010 @ 8:19 pm

    Is the principle that Larry Horn calls Multiplex negatio ferblondiat derived from the Yiddish word Farblondzhet – Lost, bewildered, confused? Or does it refer to dumb blondes?

    [(myl) On the internet, links and web search are your friends.]

  6. Graeme said,

    February 1, 2010 @ 8:13 am

    I imagine the interviewee began to say '…"we can't be second to anyone"', when the cliche 'second to none' overrode.

    The cliche is quicker than the tongue which is quicker than the brain. Especially when confronted by a journalist.

  7. Ken Grabach said,

    February 1, 2010 @ 4:53 pm

    I heard that yesterday at breakfast. I did a mental double-take, and said to myself, "Did I hear that right?" Being second-to-none is a paraphrase of what the President called for. But it went by so quickly and the commentary was on the gist of the call, and not on the language of the commentary. Live radio, even when it is replayed later, is wonderful stuff!

  8. Ben said,

    February 1, 2010 @ 6:59 pm


    I imagine the interviewee began to say '…"we can't be second to anyone"', when the cliche 'second to none' overrode.

    That's an interesting take, but I don't think it's right. I think it's precisely because the cliche second to none exists–and is so popular–that he chose to use it.

    So I don't think the intended phrase was "we can't be second to anyone" (where he then mis-negated anyone).

    I think the intended phrase was "we can be second to none" (where he then mis-negated can).

  9. Melanoman said,

    February 1, 2010 @ 7:52 pm

    "Live radio, even when it is replayed later…"


  10. The effin' bear said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 4:56 am

    Thanks, Mark, for a nice post! I apologize for my earlier confrontational vibe; I'd perhaps thrown back one too many pinots =P. Your posts are the best (don't tell Zwicky).

  11. Elaine said,

    February 7, 2010 @ 2:26 pm

    I sent NPR an email after I heard his incorrect usage wondering why the interviewer didn't 'correct' him since that was clearly a mis-use of the phrase and not what he was trying to say. Listened today for an acknowledgment of the error, but apparently, it was deemed not worthy. I fear for this nation.

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