December 26, 2004

About half

According to an AP Newswire story on the recent midwest storm,

'They're about half-scared to drive fast today,' Kentucky state trooper Barry Meadows said.

The American Heritage Dictionary says that half as an adverb means

1. To the extent of exactly or nearly 50 percent: The tank is half empty. 2. Not completely or sufficiently; partly: only half right.

So did trooper Meadows mean that drivers were scared to the extent of 50%? or that they were not completely or sufficently scared? We'd have to ask him, but my bet is that he meant to let us know that drivers were like, really scared. In support of this view, the same AP story mentions 5-foot snowdrifts, "more than 100 stranded travelers ... rescued from their snowbound vehicles", hundreds of abandoned cars, sections of interstate being closed, and so forth.

There's another case of a modifer based on half used as an intensifier. The OED notes the use of not half to mean "extremely, violently" as well as "to a very slight extent":

3. not half: a long way from the due amount; to a very slight extent; in mod. slang and colloq. use = not at all, the reverse of, as ‘not half bad’ = not at all bad, rather good; ‘not half a bad fellow’ = a good fellow; ‘not half long enough’ = not nearly long enough; also (slang), extremely, violently, as ‘he didn't half swear’.

I guess that "didn't half" became an intensifier by (partial?) conventionalization of ironic understatement. In the case of "about half", something else seems to be added to irony and/or modesty. Maybe there's a bit of uncertainty about whether the modified phrase is exactly the right way to put it, comparable to Muffy Siegel's analysis of like as "used to express a possible unspecified minor nonequivalence of what is said and what is meant". And the basic meaning "partly" is always still lurking defensively in the shadows, ready to be called forward when socially stigmatized characteristics are being confessed or attributed to others.

In the Charlie Daniels song "Good Ole Boy", some negative self-evaluations are qualified with "little" and "about half"

I'm a little wild and a little bit breezy
Rollin 'em high and ridin' 'em easy
Hog wild and woman crazy
About half mean and about half lazy
But I know what I am
And I don't give a damn
Cause I'm a good ole boy

even thought the verses make it clear that the singer is proud of having pretty well pegged the meter on wild, breezy, mean and lazy. Well, maybe you've got to refer to another song to get the details on lazy. And there I'd say that Daniels wants us to interpret layin'-around-in-the-shade as a sort of countrified appreciation of the Second Noble Truth:

Poor girl wants to marry and the rich girl wants to flirt
Rich man goes to college and the poor man goes to work
A drunkard wants another drink of wine and the politician wants a vote
I don't want much of nothing at all but I will take another toke

In a 1977 novel by Dan Jenkins, "Semi-Tough", a couple of football players from Texas and their friends use semi as as a jokey substitute for colloquial half. The book was made into a semi-popular movie, which spread semi (used to mean "very") around for a while.

This may remind you of an old controversy over another scalar predicate: if a poor performance is half-assed, is a good performance no-assed or full-assed?


Posted by Mark Liberman at December 26, 2004 09:50 AM