It seems linguists are discovering what Midwesterners like myself have done for years. In a recent article for The New Yorker, Kathryn Schulz discusses the use of phrases like “No, totally” when you actually mean “Yes.” Here’s her example, from a conversation about modern art:
“MARON: They can look at any painting and go, “Eh.” They can look at a Rothko and go, “Hey, three colors.” And then you want to hit them.
DUNHAM: No, totally.”
See? Dunham does “totally” want to hit somebody. But she starts her sentence with “No.” If she would have said “No” on its own, the meaning would be completely different. So what’s going on here?
Schulz wonders if it’s just a younger-generation phenomenon:
“Dunham is twenty-eight years old, but the “No, totally!” phenomenon is not limited to her generation. It’s not even limited to “No, totally.” I first started noticing it when a fiftysomething acquaintance responded to a question I asked by saying, “Yup! No, very definitely.” That sent me looking for other examples, which turn out to be almost nonexistent in written English but increasingly abundant in speech. In 2001, the journalist Bernard Kalb told the White House correspondent Dana Milbank that it was the job of reporters to thoroughly investigate political candidates, to which Milbank responded, “Oh, no, yes, I agree with you there.” In 2012, Anderson Cooper, talking with the CNN senior political analyst Gloria Borger, referred to Newt Gingrich as “the guy who has come back from the dead multiple times.” Borger’s reply veered toward Molly Bloom terrain: “Yes, no, exactly, exactly, exactly.”
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