Never fails: semantic over-achievers

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I am quite certain that the reviewer kiwi78 was trying to do good things for the Nahm restaurant in Knightsbridge, a district of south-west London. But the comment left at the site's page about Nahm actually said that the restaurant "never fails to disappoint."

Think about it for a moment. For the restaurant, that's not good, is it? Disappointing. It couldn't fail to disappoint.

But look at the full context of kiwi78's remarks:

Nahm never fails to disappoint on flavour & service. Dishes are complex yet superbly balanced & always beautifully presented. If you're new or not confident with Thai food the staff are very attentive & knowledgeable.

It's supposed to be a great review. And the restaurant took it for that: the management has started including kiwi78's comment in its advertising material!

It's another sad case of overnegation: of not keeping adequate track of how many negations have piled up so far, and adding one more than you intended.

Disappointing someone is basically the contradictory of satisfying them. So we have:

satisfy = NOT disappoint.Failing to do something means not doing it (in a context where there's some suggestion that you should have done it). So we have:

fail to disappoint = NOT disappoint = satisfyNever adds another negation:

never fail to disappoint = NOT ever NOT disappoint = NOT ever satisfyYou know, one of the really weird things about us human beings (it's right up there with the fact that we keep trying to elect powerful, ambitious, highly sexual men to positions of political power and then become utterly shocked when we learn they've been bedding as many women as they could while on campaign trips and speaking tours) 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.

Hat tip to Language Log reader Humphrey Evans.


[It's not false that I haven't failed to not enable comments.]


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