No small wonder

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This example of hypernegation (it that's what it is) was sent to me by Karl Zimmer:

From a review by Hilton Als of the play "The Madrid" in The New Yorker (3/11/2013; p. 76):
In a recent interview, Falco pointed out how infrequently she's offered "first dibs" on new plays. She explained, "I get offered them, but only after other people turn them down." Given that Falco is, artistically speaking, the heir to the late Maureen Stapleton–another toweringly talented actress who insisted on bare truth, not truthiness, in her performances– it's no small wonder that producers consider her a commercial risk…

This looks more to me like a blend of no wonder and small wonder than it does of negation-gone-wild. But of course that's just a guess.


  1. Keith M Ellis said,

    March 10, 2013 @ 8:34 pm

    I don't think it's either so much over-negation or a fumbled combination of familiar usages as it is a result of what seems to me to be a weird ambiguity inherent in trying to emphatically say that something is self-evidently, necessarily true in the form of denying that someone would find it difficult to believe. That is to say, I suspect that cognitively there's an instinct to "wonder" at how something could be so self-evident! That this is amazingly self-evident, it's notably self-evident!

    On re-read, that's not very clear. The author is trying to point out that it's unusually self-evident that Falco is seen as a commercial risk. But the construction the author uses connects the unusual to things which aren't self-evident and therefore inspire wonder. We'd "wonder" why producers do find Falco to be a commercial risk in the alternative that Als is contradicting.

  2. Rod Johnson said,

    March 10, 2013 @ 9:05 pm

    Compare this to no mean feat, which seems parallel.

  3. Tim Leonard said,

    March 10, 2013 @ 9:18 pm

    I guess I'm missing something, because it reads just fine to me (so Karl Zimmer and Paul Kay see something I'm missing), but in a sense opposite to that taken by Keith M Ellis (so there's obviously at least ambiguity that I don't see).

    I read "no small wonder" as "a big wonder" which means "astonishing."

    So I read the whole sentence as:
    Given that Falco is [a] toweringly talented actress […] it's [astonishing] that producers consider her a commercial risk…

    Where's the problem?

  4. Keith M Ellis said,

    March 10, 2013 @ 9:20 pm

    Isn't mean in that expression used in the "common" sense, not … well, I don't know, "difficult"? Or was your point otherwise than I construed?

  5. Keith M Ellis said,

    March 10, 2013 @ 9:34 pm

    @Tim: well, I can't find the article available online, but from the context my sense was that the article was about Falco not being picked for roles because of her insistence on the less-flashy "bare truth" as opposed to "truthiness" and therefore naturally they consider her a commercial risk.

    I don't know — now I'm sort of thinking it's over-negation. It's the negative-ness of "small" that trips us up. It has the sense of negating "big".

    No small wonder is a common phrase and in this context it's not self-evidently inappropriate because both "no" and "small" are negative yet different enough from each other that we don't automatically parse them as working mathematically and thus in opposition. But it's not of the character in English that we can read them as reinforcing each other, either.

    No small wonder is interesting in that it's inherently slightly ironic — the phrase, when used as it's intended, chooses to negate "small" to emphasize "large". It forces attention first on small wonders and then that something isn't one of those. (Of course, it could be no wonder at all! Which is consistent with this writer's intended meaning! But, really, I think we could infer this meaning only when it's a philosopher or a mathematician writing. :)

  6. John Lawler said,

    March 10, 2013 @ 10:29 pm

    Small can be either a negative trigger (Small thanks to any of you), or a simple indicator of relative size (A small piece, if you please).

    Rather like the distinction between few, which is a negative trigger, and a few, which isn't.

  7. Rod Johnson said,

    March 10, 2013 @ 10:48 pm

    Mean means "small" there, I think (paltry, stingy, etc.). So the feat is not small, i.e., it's great, in the same way that the wonder is not small.

    But on rereading the text, I agree with Karl and Paul. My putative parallel is misapplied here.

  8. Paul Mulshine said,

    March 11, 2013 @ 12:45 am

    Never mind that one. How about how she's offered "first dibs" only after other people turned the deals down? Sounds like second or third dibs to me.

  9. GeorgeW said,

    March 11, 2013 @ 5:35 am

    It is sensible to me. I interpret 'small wonder' = surprising/astonishing/amazing. So, 'no small wonder' = not surprising (no surprise).

  10. Narmitaj said,

    March 11, 2013 @ 5:48 am

    @ Paul Mulshine – How about how she's offered "first dibs" only after other people turned the deals down?

    She's not being offered "first dibs" on new plays, she's being offered new plays only after other people have turned them down, "them" in the original piece being new plays, not first dibs.

  11. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 11, 2013 @ 7:37 am

    Turning it around, googling reveals more examples of questions of the form "Is it any small wonder that X?" (which I think sets up the corresponding affirmative statement "it's no small wonder that X") than I would have anticipated. They all sound unidiomatic/ill-formed/Just-Plain-Wrong to me, but apparently my intuitions may not cover all relevant varieties of English currently extant.

  12. Nathan said,

    March 11, 2013 @ 8:55 am

    @ Paul Mulshine: It says she's infrequently offered "first dibs", most of the time getting second or third as you say.

  13. Cristian Bodor said,

    March 11, 2013 @ 12:28 pm

    haipârnâgeișân hypernegation, phonemically

  14. Paul Kay said,

    March 11, 2013 @ 1:23 pm

    @ Tim Leonard, who writes:

    I read "no small wonder" as "a big wonder" which means "astonishing." So I read the whole sentence as: Given that Falco is [a] toweringly talented actress […] it's [astonishing] that producers consider her a commercial risk…

    I think the reviewer, Als, meant that Falco's having trouble getting parts is NOT astonishing because of her insistence on truth (rather than 'truthiness') — despite her towering talent.

  15. Ted said,

    March 11, 2013 @ 2:45 pm

    @Paul Kay: I read it exactly as you do — "A wonder, and not a small one, either."

    This seems true whether you parse it as [no] [small wonder] or [no small] [wonder]. The former, of course, technically embraces the possibility of both "a large wonder" and "not a wonder at all." But if he meant not a wonder at all, why would he say "no small wonder" rather than simply "no wonder [of any degree]"?

    I see this as misnegation. He means either "no wonder" or "small wonder," but in combining them, actually negated the intended meaning.

  16. Rod Johnson said,

    March 11, 2013 @ 2:46 pm

    @Cristian Bodor: ?

  17. Rod Johnson said,

    March 11, 2013 @ 2:51 pm

    Oh, I see. Apparently Cristian roams the internets pushing his International Phonemic Alphabet website like that.

  18. Robert said,

    March 12, 2013 @ 4:14 am

    The Oxford Advanced American Dictionary lists "no small wonder" as an idiom equivalent to "it is not surprising". This is the way I would normally take the expression which I find unremarkable in the given context.
    I don't think I would ever normally attempt to parse it, as it as it exists as a whole in my head, but forced to match it to my meaning it becomes
    .NOT. (small wonder) = no surprise
    Why use it? I guess I've always taken it to be a form of litotes used for a slightly more ironic effect than a bald "no surprise".

  19. Seiichi MYOGA said,

    October 31, 2013 @ 12:01 am

    It's weird indeed.
    Oxford Advanced American Dictionary says that the form '(it's) no/little/small wonder (that)…' means 'it is not surprising,' providing this as an example:
    It's no small wonder (that) she was so upset.

    The dictionary doesn't explain why it is 'It's "no small" wonder…' but not 'It's "no (or small)" wonder…,' though. It only says under the entry 'no determiner,' 'used to express the opposite of what is mentioned
    She's no fool (= she's intelligent).
    It was no easy matter (= it was difficult).'

    Looking up 'small' in the same dictionary, you will find it may mean here that 'not much
    8 [only before noun] (used with uncountable nouns) little; not much
    The government has small cause for optimism.
    They have small hope of succeeding.'

    So based on the description given, we should logically analyze 'no small' in 'no small wonder' as meaning 'the opposite of little; not much,' that is to say, 'much.'

    I wonder whether native speakers of English do pronounce "no small wonder" the way they do with "no easy matter."

    Seiichi MYOGA

    It is not appropriate to say that 'no X' at issue means the opposite of X.
    Declerck (1988:160) say (among others) that (1) actually means something like (2).
    (1) John is no teacher.
    (2) John doesn't have the qualities of a teacher.

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