They can’t help but not misunderstand it!
There’s a big difference between saying something amusing in response to a circumstance, and having a stock phrase or line to trot out whenever a certain thing happens (typically accompanied by a broad smile). Personally, I’m absolutely shocking when it comes to the latter, but luckily if one circulates around enough hopefully to enough people the latter will seem like the former.
An example of this was the other day when I was tapping away on Facebook chat to a friend and they said “[X] has happened, and now I’m really pissed off!”, to which my Pavlovian response was “Well it’s better to be pissed off than pissed on!”. I did some research among my contemporaries, and it turns out that I started using that particular snappy comeback in the early 1990s (and have been doing so ever since)*. It’s just the thing that I say in response to the “pissed off” construction. Admittedly, I won’t use it more than once in a conversation – as that would be tedious – however it’s too complex to keep track of who I’ve said it around, and how long ago, so really it’s hard to tell if it’s been outed as a stock retort or whether it still seems witty & interesting.
The beauty of that particular stock riposte is that it leaves the other person somewhere to go, and everyone feels all the more hilarious for it. Most people say “Depends what you’re into”, although The Wise One Known As Ryan adds, “Or pissed in”.
As usual, this broad sweeping opinion piece was sparked off by something that happened in my local vicinity, and yesterday that thing was: Cow-orker #1 (lets call them “Angus”) was speaking to Cow-orker #2 (say, “Helmut”) about something. Discussion finished. Helmut turns to leave and offers “goodbye” type phrase. Angus responds similarly. Helmut appends goodbye transaction with stock line – “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do”. Angus wittily replies “That doesn’t leave much!”. And then there’s a half second of awkward non-comprehension as each tries to work out what the compound of those two statements means, before Helmut elects to treat it as throwaway and leaves the room.
My theory is that the problem here is the number of negatives being tossed about, and because they’re stock responses people just say them without really thinking through what they mean. My guess is that Angus meant to imply that Helmut is a well-renowned loose cannon & maniac and will try anything. However Helmut’s sentence construction has left ambiguity as to which set of activities Angus is referring to when he suggests the list to be meagre, and likewise Angus hasn’t specified which set of activities he’s claiming is small. If the exchange went –
Helmut: Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do!
Angus: But you’re only into golf, strangling animals, and masturbating?!
THEN it’d be clear. Wordy, but hilarious and unambiguous.
Another example which crops up from time to time is when one person exclaims “Oh God!” (typically in surprise or shock, f’rinstance if they nearly tip their beer over): it’s not uncommon for the local wit to rebound with “Yes, my son?” – the obvious implication being a sort of divine one-upmanship. Fair enough, I guess (if that’s what you’re into). Conversely, some people will also offer an offhand “Yes Dad?” if someone in the area shouts out “JESUS!”. The trouble seems to come about when either one of those two becomes a stock retort, and is used interchangeably given any sort of theological stimulus. Sometimes the broad grin is accompanied by a look of concern on the respondent’s face as if to say “Oh, that doesn’t make sense… I hope they don’t pick me up on it?”, but more often than not there’ll be no mistake registered, and ultimately I’ll walk away with a sense of unease as I try to work out whether I’m an unrequited pedant, or whether there was a wider Trinitarian connotation to your reply.
Which I guess is the entire basis of my complaint in the first instance.
(a satisfactory instant comeback with high-risibility value for any time someone shouts out a name in exclamation, as stolen from the script of Blackadder Series 3, is: “Couldn’t make it I’m afraid, we’ll have to start without him/her/it/them”. Try it. Pure gold.)
In summary: Avoid compound negatives and family lineage in your snappy comebacks and we’ll all (i.e. Me) be happier for it.
(Incidentally, the image of the labrador on the front page has nothing to do with any of this – I was just struggling to come up with a context-relevant photo, and when I searched Google Images for “double negative” that labrador turned up in the results, for some reason. Hey ho. That’s the magic of Teh Interwebs for you…)
* It later turned out that I’d picked it up from my mate Gavin at Cross Road Bowl, who was bewildered to have had any formative influence on anyone.