Friday, February 19, 2010

Yeah no absolutely

I've always been fond of tracking the latest in weird public locutions, and here's one I can't quite wrap my head around. I first noticed it a few weeks ago while listening to a radio call-in show...the host had a something-or-other expert on the horn, and every time the host asked a question the expert would answer it beginning with the phrase "Yeah, no, absolutely."

Like for instance, "Mr. Lennon, do you ever dream of winning an important literary award?" "Yeah, no, absolutely, I fantasize daily about screaming boo-ya at Don DeLillo."

I have heard the phrase several times over the past month, the most recent being this morning, from the mouth of Sandra Bullock talking on NPR about her role in what sounds to me like it must be the worst movie ever made, but what do I know. The strange thing about this phrase is that I use it myself--at least I have from time to time. And I still don't quite understand what it means.

My son's theory is that the "no" is a cancellation of the "yeah," followed by an intensified replacement of same. As in, "Yeah, wait scratch that, what I really mean is absolutely." But I think it's actually something subtler, something more like, "Yes, you're right; no, don't be concerned that you have asked an impertinent question, because my answer is, in fact, absolutely."

What, then, is your theory on this phrase? And of all the times for it to surface, why now?

11 comments:

Matt said...

In my book, it's a more affirmative "No, seriously.", or - to quote Wayne's World: "Way.". It is a little weird to see written though, and I feel sorry for anyone trying to learn the English language who comes across it without someone there to explain it.

Matt said...

And when I say "In my book" I mean that figuratively (and clichéd) as opposed to an actual book that I've written which deals with "Yeah no absolutely" in detail.

jrlennon said...

Good point, you can't use that phrase indiscriminately around here! "In my book, an eccentric postal carrier reflects on his life's disappointments."

margosita said...

I've never really thought about this. Until just now, and I sort of think my afternoon is going to be consumed by it. Because while I feel the same as your son, I also think it could be used in a subtle way. I think it tends to be used most often in situations like when Sandra Bullock used it- when the questions being asked are not unexpected, and though neither is the answer (an affirmative "yes") throwing in "yeah, no, absolutely" throws the the listener off course a little. Yes -and you expect me to say this, so wait, no, but I no, you're right, the answer is yes! ha! back to the truth... absolutely.

Great post.

Stephen said...

I think it's a secret signal that what follows isn't true. Not necessarily a lie, maybe, but something that is being said because (as marogsita noted) it's what's expected, or because it's what will invite the least amount of argument, or because it affirms the superior coolness of the speaker. Why, if you're going to bullshit a little, would you kick off with three downbeats instead of one? Maybe because you're not a bad person and you want to let your listener know that they're about to enter a truth-relative dimension where "no" and "absolutely" can be applied equally and interchangeably to the same statement.

jon said...

I think this is linguistic noise, like 'um', verbal filler to give the speaker a chance to figure out what to say.

But the problem in its meaning is a little like the double negative, double positive thing.
there's a famous (probably apocryphal) story about the linguistics conference where a guy says, "The double negative means a positive, but there is no double positive that means a negative." and someone stands up and says, sarcastically (sorry for the adverb), 'Yeah, right.'

jrlennon said...

It's funny, I just read that story somewhere, and it clearly identified the two speakers. But I have no recollection of where I read it.

I think the response was actually, "Yeah, yeah."

margosita said...

Also, I think it can be used in response to a question, when the affirmative answer might seem confusing. Such as, "Would you mind if I used this chair?" You want to say "Yeah" (of course you can) but it is confusing, because it sounds like "Yeah, I would mind"- so you cancel out the confusing "yeah" and rush on with, "No" (I wouldn't mind), "Absolutely" (to re-clarify the confusing "yeah").

jrlennon said...

Maybe that's where it came from--a sort of double-take after a "do you mind" question. And it became a kind of generalized "polite/casual" reply from there.

Burl Veneer said...

I have been lamenting the "yeah, no" construction lately, and also the trend of prefacing questions with "Wait," as in "Wait, what?"

Nancy said...

Fascinating to conjecture.

As an American living in Britain, it sounds to me like that also irritating expression " whatever" which also implies some unaddressed conflict