We’ve probably all heard sentences like I’m not super into rap music and I wasn’t super listening to you, could you repeat that? But a line from the television series 30 Rock really got me thinking about the construction at work here when I heard the following:
We really don’t want this to go to court for a number of reasons. You two could be personally liable for any damages. Hank Hooper hates any type of negative publicity like this. And I didn’t super duper finish law school, so…
-Unnamed ‘Lawyer’, Season 7 Episode 10 of 30 Rock.
We all know what these constructions mean without any complex analysis. That person doesn’t like rap music at all. That person wasn’t listening at all. By no stretch of the imagination was that person ever awarded a degree in law, no matter how much he may try to soften the blow.
What’s happening here is actually not that different from a process we already see in English in things like I’m not feeling too well and I wasn’t really paying attention to this article. There is a negator (e.g. not) followed by an intensifier such as very, really or super (duper). It’s a particular brand of understatement. Of course, 30 Rock’s form super duper is unlikely to be as popular as other negated intensifiers. Using super with verbs rather than adjectives is less common, but not unheard of. Thus, super duper with a verb is even more unusual.
These negated intensifiers bear a strong resemblance to litotes. Litotes is a form of understatement that involves an inherently negative adjective (bad, unfair, unclear) that is in negated as a form of understatement. So, rather than saying something is fair, we would say it’s not unfair, giving it a milder meaning. For some, the quality of negating a negative is key to litotes. So, even if not everyone agrees negated intensifiers are the same thing, they do share a soul. They both set up a clear and specific meaning through word choices and then negate it.
Importantly, both constructions show, in the vaguest of senses, a hint of euphemism in the speaker’s hesitation to say something bad. Sometimes, negated intensifiers are piled into a sentence like clowns into a Volkswagen when the speaker is trying extra hard to soften a blow, such as in I wasn’t really very much all that interested in that article you wrote because it got too meta. The use of so many intensifiers ultimately portrays even lower levels of interest. In the name of politeness, we prefer to focus conversation around these very passionate feelings we don’t have: not very interested, not feeling very well, still not super into rap music.
So, next time you’re throwing something together to politely decline an invitation or offer because of something you lack (interest, enthusiasm, functioning ankles, etc.), I hope you’ll now notice any negated intensifiers you use… even if you’re not super duper ready to try completely new wording.
Tias Allard is a PhD candidate in Linguistics at Monash University. He is writing his thesis on folk etymologies and how they influence people’s perceptions of words. Unsurprisingly, 30 Rock is one of his all-time favourite shows.