December 07, 2004

Baffling award of the year, again

What's wrong with these people? Last year, the Plain English Campaign gave its Foot in Mouth award to Donald Rumsfeld, for a remark that was sensible and even eloquent. This year, the award went to Boris Johnson, a British Member of Parliament, for a comment made on December 12, 2003: "I could not fail to disagree with you less". This is a stock phrase that I first heard when I was twelve or so.

A quick check on Google informs me that it has been Chris Cane's mother's favorite "show stopper" for the past half century or more. In the form "I couldn't fail to disagree with you less", it's listed in an online collection of amusing sayings, along with "a closed mouth gathers no feet" and "I refuse to engage in a battle of wits with an unarmed person".

"I could not fail to disagree with you less" is a unoriginal and slightly childish play on the problems of overnegation. As a choice for the most "truly baffling comment" of the year, it's pathetic.

Posted by Mark Liberman at December 7, 2004 02:17 AM