"Yeah no" in popular culture

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Shortly before the Great Language Log Server Meltdown, there was a reader-inspired post on the conversational sequence "yeah no" (4/3/2008), which in turn inspired a lot of interesting reader reaction ("'Yeah no' mailbag", 4/3/2008; "Yet another 'yeah no' note", 4/4/2008).

And just as I was distracted by the old server's death on 4/6/2008 (R.I.P.), other readers sent in a number of fascinating examples of "yeah, no" in TV shows, movies, advertisements, and books.

So a week or ten days late, here they are.

Katy Catlin wrote:

I'm a bit late with this, but in case you'd still like some instances of "yeah, no" in pop culture, here's a conversation from a first-season episode of "How I Met Your Mother":

Ted: So, Lil, Marshall's family. Whole weekend with the future in-laws, you excited?
Lily: Yeah, no, it'll be fun.
Robin: Lily, you just said, "yeah, no."
Lily: Did I? No, I, I love Marshall's family.
Robin, Ted: Oh.
Lily: But, yeah, no, it'll be great.
Ted: You just did it again.
Lily: Yeah, no, shut up.

(From transcript here.)

Daniel Harper wrote:

With respect to the recent "Yeah, No" posts over at Language Log, there's a reference that I haven't seen in any of the commentary. The first time I ran across the phrase was in the Paul Thomas Anderson movie Punch-Drunk Love, in which the Adam Sandler character uses "Yeah, No" as a way of politely declining social interactions with which he is uncomfortable. (Script here.)

ELIZABETH    Hey, how are you?
BARRY   I'm fine, hi, how are you?
ELIZABETH   I'm just stopping by to say hello.
BARRY   Hello.
ELIZABETH   So you're coming tonight, right?
BARRY   Yes, indeed, yes I am.
ELIZABETH   There's this girl, this friend of mine from work that I think is really cute and really cool and I want you to meet her so I was thinking about bringing her to the party tonight.
BARRY   Oh yeah no I don't want to do that.
BARRY   Well I don't want to do something like that.
ELIZABETH   She's my friend and you should meet her. You'd like her.
BARRY   Yeah, but please don't do that.
ELIZABETH   I'm not really asking you, I'm telling you.
BARRY   Yeah but please don't do that: everyone would be looking at me.

The Anderson fan site Cigarettes and Red Vines has this little snippet here, which talks about the linguistic choice:

Q: How much of Barry Egan's is you – your creation – and how much is Adam Sandler's? When you wrote the script you had a character in mind, but with Adam playing it how much of him did he put on the character, how much you put on the character?

PTA: I don't know how to answer that because writing for him – I know is him, you also sort of write yourself cause you can't help it. This stuff kinda comes up. I had a good friend who would always say yes before he said no. We would say "yeah…no, I don't really want to do that" — And I kinda liked that — and I also come from a big family so I know what it's like — that sort of frustration. You sort of feel tongue tied, that kinda thing — where you want to throw punches instead of saying anything. You don't know what to say, you don't know how to trust anybody — that kind of stuff and i see that with my other siblings a little bit. And then Adam and I were talking, he would improvise y'know. I never really remember exactly how that stuff goes a year or two later. It just all sort of gets into the plot and it happens.

Tom Akroyd writes:

I have to admit to only skim-reading your Language Log entries about "yeah, no" but still didn't see any reference to New Zealand, where this is regularly heard in casual speech. It means something like "everything's ok" or "No worries, it's all sorted." It's also heard as a throwaway opener; "yeahno it was ok" meaning simply "it was ok". In a more drawn-out delivery – as in "Yeaah … naah …" – it can express a vaguely bored lack of interest.

It appeared recently in this funny New Zealand TV commercial, where both meanings were somehow conveyed together in an acutely embarrassed way by the main character:

I work for the ad agency that made it, and our Irish creative director loved its New Zealandness so much he had a t-shirt made with just the words "Yeah… nah…" on it.

I suspect that this is the same as one of the Australian usages described by Kate Burridge (see here and here for references). The example in the ad convinces me that there's an antipodal "yeah, no" (or "yeah… nah…") that has developed beyond the range of uses shared with the rest of the anglophone world.

And Faith Jones wrote:

SO glad to have LL back… our house was Jonesing a bit there. Will update the link from my blog anon.

Well, reading Richard Price's new novel, Lush Life, I've come across several "yeah, no" instances and I find them entirely clear, even in written form (presumably because Price is a good writer). There's also "no, yeah, no, no" and other variations. I can transcribe them for you, if you like, but it's worth reading the book because his ear for dialogue is just dead-on.

As it happens, I had bought a copy of Lush Life for the Kindle, to read on my recent trip to a workshop in Florida, and so I was able to search the text and discover that there are 18 examples of "yeah, no", in a work of 464 printed ages. (In contrast, William Vollmann's The Royal Family has no examples at all in its 780 pages of gritty urban narrative.)

I wouldn't have picked "entirely clear" as a term to describe Richard Price's elliptical and evocative dialogue. Here's one of the "yeah no" passages:

"We going to the Heights?" he murmured.
"First things first."
"What do you mean, what …" Little Dap cocking his head. "Gotta get that cheese, podner."
"Oh," Tristan said. "Shit."
In his preoccupation with the big journey to Washington Heights, he had forgotten that part of it.
"What." Little Dap sipped deep. "You never…"
"Yeah no, not like …"
Little Dap shrugged. "Ain't nothing to it," passing him the joint.

Clear, yes. "Entirely clear", I'm not so sure.

Here's another example, maybe a little closer to entirely clear:

"What you hear?"
"Like a shot, shots."
"One, like a firecracker, like 'pop pop.'"
"That's two."
"Yeah, no, just one."

Here's another — the yeahs and nos are clear enough, but stepping in place?

"What do you want with Ike?" the woman repeated, her voice getting smaller.
"Are you his mother?"
"No. Yeah. No, no." Stark-eyed now, she began stepping in place, raised a finger like a saint. "I'm married. To his father. Remarried. What's wrong."

This one has a different flavor of "yeah no":

"Well, I would have been here earlier," Marcus said, "but I couldn't find it."
"Yeah, no, the streets are tricky down here, but if I had known you were coming, I would have sent –"
"No, no, I couldn't find the, the city, the whole fucking New York City. I took the Saw Mill instead of the Thruway, and I would up at the Whitestone Bridge somehow, then –"

In this one, the "yeah, no" is part of an internal monologue:

"Let me tell you something. This right here isn't about researching your next role. It's a job. In fact, we're paying you. And I'm gonna tell you soemthing else. It's proactive. Customers don't come to a bar for the drinks, they come for the bartender. Any bartender worth a shit knows this, but you, you stand there, got a one-word answer for everything: uh, uh, duh, yes, no, maybe.  You make people feel like losers, like they're your punishment from a jealous God or something. I swear, Cleveland?" Nodding to the Rastahead at the far end now. "The guy makes a martini like he's got hooks for hands, but he's twice the bartender you are because he works it. Everybody's a regular with that guy, and he never stops moving, never comes off like this gig is some demeaning station of the cross on his way to the Obies. I mean, watching the two of you back here tonight? It's like a blur and a boulder. And to honest, right now even with the traffic the way it is, I'd rather cash you out on the spot, have him work a solo, or draft one of the waiters or even come back there myself than let you pull this 'I'd rather be in rehearsals' crap ten more minutes, you hear me?"

"Yeah." The guy had gone pale.
"I'm sorry, say what?" Cupping an ear.
"Yes." Wide-eyed. "I hear you."
"Excellent. Just remember. No energy? No gig. Talk. Smile. Do it. You're hanging by a thread."
"Can I say one thing?" Half-raising his hand.
Eric waited.
"I happen to be in med school."
"Same difference," Eric said, thinking, Sort of, yeah, no, most definitely, even worse, I happen to be, like Little Lord Fauntleroy […]

A couple more, while we're here:

"Minette, where are you?"
Another voice, in the room with her time time, tentatively calling out for a Miguel Pinto as if reading the name off someone else's handwriting.
"Are you in a hospital?"
"Yeah, no, it's nothing."
"What's nothing. Are you OK?"
"Me? Yeah." Then muffling the receiver and calling out, "Excuse me, miss?" Coming back to him. "I have to go." And hanging up.


"You didn't need to come all the way down here. We could have talked on the phone."
"I'm sorry."
"No, no, I meant as a burden on you."
"Yeah, no, well, I guess I just needed to get out of there for a little, for a few minutes."


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