Monday, June 16, 2008

Did you not hear me?

One definition of an idiom: a phrase or sequence of words that conveys a meaning that cannot be explained by its construction.

Sometimes the construction isn't grammatical or doesn't occur elsewhere in a speaker's language (e.g. a couple three __s or you bet you). Most commonly cited idioms have a grammatical construction but a meaning that can't be extracted other than by convention (e.g. she had to eat crow).

Such idioms are often picturesque and many have traceable metaphorical meanings.

  • To trip the light fantastic
  • Filling your eyes before your stomach
  • Lay an egg
  • Shoot from the hip
  • Pulling your leg

    But for the moment I'm more interested in those utterly prosaic idioms that don't paint a picture or rely on an image or sound very colorful. The idioms that sometimes don't even sound like idioms.

    I've been wondering for a while about the phrase You don't say. In a 1935 article in Language L.W. Merryweather uses it as the translation for the phrase "The hell you say!"1 Allen Walker Read includes it in a fuller form ("You don't say so!") alongside a quote illustrating old scratch as a 1848 "Nantucketism."2

    It can express interest with little or no surprise.
    • That new restaurant was quite good.
    • You don't say. We'll have to try it.

    It can express surprise.
    • I won the lottery!
    • You don't say! That's great.

    It can be an ironic expression of surprise in response to an obvious statement.
    • The sun will rise tomorrow.
    • You don't say. And here I thought the government cut that program.

    But the path to its meaning isn't clear. There could easily be some connection between disbelief that a claim is true and disbelief that a claim has been--or should be--uttered. Somewhat as 'don't tell me' connects I don't want to hear that with I don't want that to be true.

    So -- you don't say (so) [unless it's true]?

    It's an inelegant explanation. I'm entertaining better offers. I know they're out there.

    Let me take this opportunity to encourage you to read John McIntyre's blog: You Don't Say.]

    1. American Speech, Vol. 6, No. 6 (Aug., 1931), p. 433
    2. American Speech, Vol. 10, No. 1 (Feb., 1935), p. 41


    1. Spanish has almost exactly the same construction: ¡No me digas! ("Don't tell me!"), used in both the amazement and ironic senses that we have in English. More info:

    2. I know that one mostly used with exasperation.

      Heavy stress on the "¡No!"


    Thanks for reaching out.

    You can also contact me at wishydig[at]gmail[d0t]com.