Trump's debate denials

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As Geoff Pullum noted, in last night's presidential debate, many of Trump's interruptions of Clinton (or shall we say his "manterruptions") involved on-the-fly denials of what Clinton was saying. Geoff describes one such denial: "'Not!' he snapped at one point, like a 9-year-old, during one of her utterances."

Let's go to the transcript:

CLINTON: Well, Donald, I know you live in your own reality, but that is not the facts. The facts are — I did say I hoped it would be a good deal, but when it was negotiated…


This style of "not!" got a lot of attention in the early '90s thanks to its popularization in Saturday Night Live's "Wayne's World" sketches and subsequent movie spinoffs. But, contra the Recency Illusion, Wayne and Garth didn't coin the "not!" retort. As early as 1992, Larry Horn was pointing out the history of what he calls "retro-NOT" predating SNL. (See "The Said and the Unsaid," Ohio State University Working Papers in Linguistics 40, July 1992, pp. 186-7.) Jesse Sheidlower and Jonathan Lighter continued the historical investigation in their 1993 paper in American Speech, "A Recent Coinage (Not!)." The latest OED entry for not reflects this research:

colloq.  [perhaps influenced by NIT adv.   (see J. T. Sheidlower and J. E. Lighter in Amer. Speech (1993)68 213–8). In later use, popularized by Mike Myers and Dana Carvey in the ‘Wayne's World’ sketches on the NBC television programme Saturday Night Live from 1989, and especially by the spin-off film Wayne's World in 1992.] Used humorously following a statement to indicate that it should not be taken seriously (usually because the idea expressed is untrue or unlikely to happen), or sarcastically to negate a statement made immediately before. Cf. I don't think at THINK v.2 11a(c).
[1860   ‘G. Eliot’ Mill on Floss III. vi. vi. 90   She would make a sweet, strange, troublesome, adorable wife to some man or other, but he would never have chosen her himself. Did she feel as he did? He hoped she did—not.]
1888   Cincinnati Times-Star 26 July 2/2   Of course ‘White Wings’ was mourned because he was hissed. Yes he did—not!!!
1893   Princeton Tiger 30 Mar. 103   An Historical Parallel—Not.
1900   G. Ade More Fables 80   Probably they preferred to go back to the Front Room and hear some more about Woman's Destiny not.
1905   E. P. Butler Pigs is Pigs in Amer. Mag. Sept. 499   Oh, yes! ‘Mister Morehouse, two an' a quarter, plaze.’ ‘Cert'nly, me dear frind Flannery. Delighted!’Not!
1950   R. Stout In Best Families vii. 73   The cop..called, ‘Pull over to the curb.’ Flattered at the attention as any motorist would be, not, I obeyed.
1975   E. Wilson Twenties 323   Held up by cyclone at South Amboy—‘wicked little boy who kept jeering at us, “You'll get there tonight—not!”’
1991   M. Myers et al. Wayne's World (film script, final revision) 89   Well, I'm having a good time so far..not. It sucks baby Rhino.
2000   F. Walker Power of Two in J. Adams et al. Girls' Night In 48   Vizza revelled in increasingly outlandish exclusives, revealing his broken heart. Yeah. Like he knew how it felt—not.

Elsewhere in the debate, another one of Trump's interrupting denials featured an abrupt switch of tenses:

CLINTON: Donald thinks that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese. I think it’s real.

TRUMP: I did not. I did not. I do not say that.

CLINTON: I think science is real.

TRUMP: I do not say that.

Trump clearly did once tweet that the Chinese are responsible for "the concept of global warming," though he later claimed he was making a joke — see Politifact's assessment.

So perhaps his self-repair to "I do not say that" was intended to distance himself from something he did say but can't admit he said.


  1. Ginger Yellow said,

    September 27, 2016 @ 9:27 am

    You could say it depends what the meaning of "do" is.

  2. RP said,

    September 27, 2016 @ 10:22 am

    Given that the accusation is phrased in the present tense ("Donald thinks"), the most natural way of stating the denial is also in the present tense ("I do not") – although if Clinton had already said "I think it's real, he might then have appeared to be responding to that statement instead.

  3. Yuval said,

    September 27, 2016 @ 11:15 am

    The gold standard of "Not!" in comedy:
    Not Jokes

  4. chandan said,

    September 27, 2016 @ 12:19 pm

    I always thought "Not" originated with Not Man, the unofficial mascot of the band Anthrax (c.1988). The more you know…

  5. Walter Underwood said,

    September 27, 2016 @ 12:25 pm

    I was startled to find that usage of "Not!" in "Three Soldiers" by John Dos Passos (1921). That was the Wayne's World version, by the same speaker instead of a retort.

    I went back to locate it, but couldn't. Can't find it in the online version, either. Dang it.

  6. Ben Zimmer said,

    September 27, 2016 @ 1:18 pm

    @Walter Underwood: Is this it?

    "'Oh, if we had kale we could live like kings — not,' said Al in the middle of a nervous little giggle."

    A year before, in 1920, F. Scott Fitzgerald used it in "Bernice Bobs Her Hair": "Yes, they were–not!" (Fitzgerald is cited in the Sheidlower & Lighter article in American Speech, but not Dos Passos.)

  7. Brett said,

    September 27, 2016 @ 5:31 pm

    Having been in high school at the height of the popularity of "Wayne's World," it seemed like fairly common knowledge that Wayne and Garth had not originated this use of "Not!"; however, they had been responsible for popularizing it tremendously.

    The usage still has a very '90s feel to me, even though I know it's older. I'm surprised that I didn't remember it occurring in "Bernice Bobs Her Hair," though. So many elements of that story feel extremely dated; I would have thought something that seemed so distinctively '90s would have really stuck out.

  8. j said,

    September 28, 2016 @ 8:47 am

    I think there's a difference between e.g. the Bernice example and the Wayne's World example. Fitzgerald's Marjorie says: "Yes, they were–not!" But in this sentence, the "not" is in a place where it could be part of the syntax. Marjorie could say, "They were not." The dash just puts extra emphasis on a negation that would come at the end of the sentence anyway. Whereas, to fit 'normal' English syntax, the Wayne's World example would have to run, "I am not having a good time," not *"I am having a good time not." The first example of the latter usage that I see in the OED's list is either the 1893 (not sure where it falls as it's not a full sentence; it looks like a section heading) or the 1900. The George Eliot example, for instance, to me is clearly a form of typographical emphasis added to the sentence, "He hoped she did not."
    Still much earlier than one would expect.

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