"It didn't fail to disappoint"

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A lovely misnegation sent in by David Denison — Kevin Mitchell, "'There was so much noise' says Jamie Murray after Davis Cup doubles win", The Guardian 11/28/2015 [emphasis added]:

"There was so much noise," Jamie said. "It was mental. There's a low roof as well so everything's packed in. We were shouting to each other at the baseline trying to tell each other where we were going to serve. But it was brilliant. It's a Davis Cup final – we expected it to be noisy, a lot of passion and fans out here. It didn't fail to disappoint."

Geoff Pullum wrote about "fail to disappoint" a few years ago ("Never fails: semantic over-achievers", 12/1/2011), but I don't think we've noted just how common this particular usage is.

In the Google News index from the past few weeks, we find (among many others)

(link) With an interesting plot twist at the end, the reveal did not fail to disappoint one bit!
(link) Every episode of NXT usually gets a positive review and the TakeOver events never fail to disappoint.
(link) The college basketball season is fully underway and the Pac-12 Conference is back with new faces and fantastic freshmen talent. The conference shouldn't fail to disappoint, and with plenty of time until the madness of March begins, there is a lot to talk about in the Pac-12.
(link) Locust Project never fails to disappoint, and this year for Basel the gallery is bringing Brooklyn-based artist Martha Friedman's first major show in Miami, Pore.
(link) Katie never fails to disappoint on the red carpet, and the Stylemakers event was no exception. Working with makeup artist Fabiola Arancibia, the Dawson's Creek actress opted for fresh, dewy skin and rosy lip color.
(link) Nancy Ajram doesn't just hit the spot with her angelic voice, she never fails to disappoint her fans on the fashion front either.
(link) Toppers never fails to disappoint, and I loved its whole new range of denim styles, sportswear and Miu Miu inspired shoes.

But unlike some other common misnegations, this one is also often used with its compositional meaning, e.g.

(link) HAMBLETON District Council never fails to disappoint. Its November 12 planning committee meeting, which including Brompton Councillor Isobel Sanderson, unanimously approved the North Northallerton Development […] My conclusion is that Hambleton council, having created enormous congestion in Northallerton by allowing so much development over the last 50 years, is digging itself into deeper trouble by approving the North Northallerton development. Unacceptably disappointing.
(link) Dessert is provided gratis, but only a cannoli fails to disappoint. Competent service, and agreeable atmosphere cannot undo the bad food at Villa Armando.
(link) Intel's mobile group never fails to disappoint and it would seem that, once again, getting lapped by its competitors is par for the course for this division.
(link) That is meant as no disrespect to Djilobodji, an experienced international who was holding his own in the lower end of Ligue 1, but with expectations so highly raised the move couldn't fail to disappoint.

As Geoff wrote,

You know, one of the really weird things about us human beings […] is that we have somehow created for ourselves languages that are just a bit too flexible and expressive for our brains to handle. We have managed to build languages in which arbitrarily deep nesting of negation and quantification is possible, when we ourselves have major difficulties handling the semantics of anything beyond about depth 1 or 2. That is so weird. But that's how we are: semantic over-achievers, trying to use languages that are quite a bit beyond our intellectual powers.

If you think about it, this is a version of the "Peter Principle" applied to (biological and cultural) evolution. As Wikipedia explains,

The Peter principle is a concept in management theory formulated by Laurence J. Peter in which the selection of a candidate for a position is based on the candidate's performance in their current role, rather than on abilities relevant to the intended role. Thus, employees only stop being promoted once they can no longer perform effectively, and "managers rise to the level of their incompetence."

Similarly, language(s) will develop in complexity to the point where they often fail. If language never failed, it would develop further. If a linguistic  innovation almost always failed, it would never catch on. So as a result, language rises to the level of our collective incompetence.



6 Comments

  1. Dan Lufkin said,

    November 29, 2015 @ 12:10 pm

    Thanks. This posting fills a much-needed gap in my linguistic knowledge.

  2. AntC said,

    November 29, 2015 @ 3:43 pm

    Re GKP's point about the expressive power of languages we humans have created …

    I feel some comparison with Godel's theorem is in order: anything powerful enough for human needs, including the need for self-reference, is bound to carry the seeds of its own contradictions. It's not just the monkey brains.

    [(myl) This is a good point. But even if a logical reconstruction of our communication system were effectively computable, we would probably still push its use exactly to the limit of our computational capacity, and then a bit beyond.]

  3. a George said,

    November 29, 2015 @ 7:11 pm

    I think that "misnegation" is applied too liberally, here.
    To me the debated expression is indeed a misnegation, as is "did not fail to disappoint", "shouldn't fail to disappoint", "a cannoli fails to disappoint", and "couldn't fail to disappoint".

    However, in the examples above, all the sentences with "never" make perfect sense as they stand, although that may not have been the intended sense. "Never fails to" is equivalent to "invariably", and "invariably disappoints" to me means that the reporter had low expectations that were fulfilled.
    Am I missing something?

    [(myl) Yes, I think you are. First, in the first set of "never fails to disappoint" examples, it's clear in context that the writer had high expectations, not low expectations, and was nevertheless not disappointed. And second, it doesn't make sense to describe something that exceeds (even low) expectations as "disappointing" — disappoint means "fail to fulfill the hopes or expectations of (someone)", or (as MW tells us) "to make (someone) unhappy by not being as good as expected".]

  4. Jason said,

    November 29, 2015 @ 11:34 pm

    "We have managed to build languages in which arbitrarily deep nesting of negation and quantification is possible,"

    But as any syntactician will tell you, it's usually a lot easier to build a language in which an "abitrarily deep nesting" of productions is possible, than one in which precisely N levels are possible, and not more or less. We didn't "manage to build it", this was a feature of language from its earliest versions. Our ability to semantically interpret such indefinite combinatorial possibilities is what's had to evolve.

    Language's power to indefinitely nest and embed constructions is something we get "for free", in virtue of them being the result of the most natural way of constructing a grammar, it's not as a result of some height of linguistic evolution and prowess. This is something that Daniel Everett persists in refusing to understand for the length of an entire book about Pirahã, among other sins.

  5. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    November 30, 2015 @ 5:32 am

    @AntC
    I regularly tell people that want language to be a logic engine that it's never going to work out because language is a human creation and human minds are simply not all that rational in the end.

  6. AntC said,

    November 30, 2015 @ 7:16 pm

    @J-S G: and logics or Turing machines are not human inventions?

    I don't think it's that human minds are incapable of being rational. It's that there's a quantitative limit on processing, especially in fluid extempore speech contexts.

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