When I read the TechCruch story Technorati scores $7.6m more funding I was immediately struck (and highly amused by) the phrase "traffic continues not to spike."

"Clever!" I thought. That Marashall guy has a way with words.

[By the way, this has nothing to do with Technorati or their traffic. I love those guys.]

Anyway, that got me wondering why that phrase was particularly funny to me. And after a bit of thinking on the matter, I hit about the likely candidate: the surprise. The word "not" is unexpected. If you happen to be skimming the article quickly, you might not even see it. Your brain would read "traffic continues to spike" and you'd think "yeah, Technorati keeps getting more popular."

But it doesn't say that at all. It's a subtle insult hidden in plain sight. And that, for some reason, appeals to me.

I then realized that there's a whole class of expressions I occasionally encounter in journalism that bother me. A statement like "President Bush failed to XXXXX" is common to hear or read--and not just because Bush is considered to be a failure by some. It's common because it's a sneaky way to make you think that there's an expectation or a goal when there often never was.

The extreme example of such language is for me to say "I failed to hit a single telephone pole on my drive home last night." While it's a completely true (and mildly amusing) statement, it makes you think that I might have been trying to hit telephone poles. You're not entirely sure if that inability to hit telephone poles is good or bad.

It's kind of like what someone once told me about flying. Flying is the act of falling and failing to hit the ground.

Are there other examples of such language play that have particularly amused you in the past?

Posted by jzawodn at July 13, 2006 05:02 PM

Reader Comments
# Stephen Duncan Jr said:

"There is an art, it says, or rather, a knack to flying.
The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss."

Douglas Adams - The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

on July 13, 2006 05:53 PM
# Stephen Duncan Jr said:

Full passage here: http://www.skygod.com/quotes/hitchhikers.html

Just figured I'd point out where "someone" might have gotten the quote from before telling it to you. :)

on July 13, 2006 05:54 PM
# Sebastian Delmont said:

The whole opus of Douglas Adams, mostly know for the "ever growing five book trilogy of the Hitchhicker Guide to the Galaxy" is full of such expressions.

One of my favorites is "The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don't."

See http://www.quotationspage.com/quotes/Douglas_Adams for more.

on July 13, 2006 06:07 PM
# Hashim said:

traffic did spike this year:

on July 13, 2006 07:18 PM
# Alden Bates said:

One of my favourite HHG quotes is when Arthur gets something "almost but not quite entirely unlike a cup of tea" from a tea dispenser.

on July 13, 2006 07:35 PM
# Ben Tremblay said:

Have you read Douglas R. Hofstadter's "Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid"? Bet you have. "This sentence is short." "This one's not longer." (Just came up with the second.)

But what came to mind when I read your post was "conspicuous by its absence"; totally meaningful but there's a tug of contradiction to it.

p.s. in your "submission failed" form? There's no space for your name. So submitting it causes it to fail. A "self-fulfilling" form? ;-P

on July 13, 2006 09:16 PM
# Joshua Allen said:

Yes, I love these semantic games. My wife always groans and rolls her eyes when I start explaining the semantic inconsistencies being perpetrated by the talking head on the television at that moment.

The examples in the post seem to be presuppositions; "when did you stop beating your wife?", which no matter which way you parse the sentence, you have to accept the premise that wife beating is happening (or that traffic was the goal, or that Bush intended to do 'X')

Presuppositions are one class of statements that therapists catalogue as examples of how people use language to protect neuroses (or as you point out, to lie, which is what neurosis is). Other examples are unspecifiec refrents, "I NEVER can do this right!" (Well, when, specifically, did you not do it right?) I am fascinated by the prevalence of neurotically ambivalent statements in common speech.

Regarding more whimsical or clever sentence constructions, Hofstadter covered many different types of these in his columns in Scientific American, collected in his book "metamagical themas".

on July 13, 2006 10:08 PM
# Richard Cunningham said:

Yogi Berra once said, "No one goes there anymore, it's too crowded"

on July 13, 2006 10:34 PM
# Otis Gospodnetic said:

The word is that TechCrunch is changing its name to StarCrunch.

That aside, the surprise bit that you are talking about is the essence of a lot of humour. That much I managed not to forget from school. I think it was either grade 1 or 2, or maybe even 3.

on July 13, 2006 10:56 PM
# Mike Papageorge said:

"Who are 3 people who have never been in my kitchen?" ;-)

on July 14, 2006 01:39 AM
# Greg Stein said:

"I can't tell you enough good things about Jeremy."

"You can't put too much water in a nuclear reactor."

on July 14, 2006 02:07 AM
# Jamie McCarthy said:

Heh. Bush suffers from the media's high expectations? Bush?!


on July 14, 2006 04:33 AM
# Rob Steele said:

Jeremy came to work sober today.

on July 14, 2006 05:54 AM
# vanderwal said:

TechCrunch is not another way to say TechImplosion for products real people still can't use

on July 14, 2006 06:31 AM
# Richard Crowley said:

I've got another to add to your list:

...and a somewhat not too hard to look at front end...

(via http://elliottback.com/wp/archives/2006/02/08/songbird-no-bloatware-thanks/)

on July 15, 2006 09:22 AM
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