May 23, 2005

The temptation of overnegation

In October of 1973, Saudi Arabia declared an oil embargo against the United States, to protest U.S. support for Israel in the Yom Kippur war. In March of 1974, after Henry Kissinger helped negotiate a disengagement in the fighting, the Saudis lifted the embargo. The embargo caused an oil shock that "doubled the real price of crude oil at the refinery level, and caused massive shortages in the US".

In an interview with Business Week, Kissinger said, "I am not saying that there's no circumstances where we would not use force." See "Kissinger on Oil, Food, and Trade," Business Week, 13 January 1975, 66-76. [Gawdat Bahgat, "Oil and militant Islam: strains on U.S.-Saudi relations", World Affairs, winter 2003, Footnote 14]

Henry Kissinger was the U.S. Secretary of State at the time, and he was answering a question about whether or not the U.S. would invade Saudi Arabia. Presumably he weighed his words carefully, and meant to convey a threat. But the words that he chose are puzzling.

Kissinger might have said "I'm not saying that there's no circumstances where we would use force", to hint that we might in fact use force. The statement is in some sense meaningless, since it could be truly uttered by any government official in the world at any time in history: there are some circumstances where any nation will use force, and everyone knows it. All the same, for a practiced diplomat to say this, in reference to a particular source of tension, still communicates something. The repetition of well-known facts and even tautologies is often informative, if only by communicating that a certain issue is relevant: "Money doesn't grow on trees"; "What's right is right".

But Kissinger didn't say that. He threw in an extra negative: "I'm not saying that there's no circumstances where we would not use force". Did he mean that his default framework was "there's no circumstances where we would not use force", i.e. "we will use force in every circumstance"; and then back off from this uniform belligerency a bit by saying "I'm not saying that..."?

I don't think so. This seems like a classic overnegation. One way of looking at this is that in sentences with multiple negations, people get confused about how the polarity works out, and therefore put in the wrong number of negatives and end up saying the opposite of what they mean. Another perspective is that negation is a feature that sometimes seems to spread across multiple locations in a phrase. Though formal modern English is not a negative concord language, speakers are still often tempted by the old negative-concord patterns that still apply in colloquial phrases like "it ain't no cat can't get in no coop".

Some may speculate that Kissinger did this on purpose, to make the interpretation of his threat even more obscure. Maybe so, but I suspect that this reaction falls into the pattern described by another Kissinger quote: "The nice thing about being a celebrity is that when you bore people, they think it's their fault."

[Kissinger quote via Gabriel Nivasch]

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 23, 2005 09:29 AM