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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

what part of no don’t you understand?

(1990’s | journalese (politics)? | “no means no,” “don’t you get it?,” “stop acting like an idiot”)

Nearly anything can substitute for “no” in this rhetorical question — “this” and “that” are often used — otherwise it is invariable, except that occasionally you will see a pronoun other than “you” (“they,” I should say, a majority of the time). Normally used as a rejoinder or expostulation suggesting that you fail to grasp something that has been made abundantly clear; therefore, whether actively disingenuous or not, you are being obtuse. Whether directed to a child by a parent or to public officials by voters, it bears an outraged, sarcastic, or at least exasperated edge. Linguist Arnold Zwicky has provided a very thorough exposition and history of the phrase and how it may be amended. The Phrase Finder’s entry is also worth a look.

Neither Zwicky nor anyone else has uncovered a primal connection with a film or television show, which surprises me; this question has always struck me as very likely to have fallen originally from the lips of an actor. (I have noted previously that this sort of genesis isn’t as common as one might suppose.) Lorrie Morgan’s 1992 country hit featured it prominently. LexisNexis suggests that this expression, and its numerous variants, are less common now than in the 1990’s, when it became generally known. A celebrity or public official uses it every so often; presidential candidate Herman Cain, disgraced general David Petraeus, and the president of Venezuela were all quoted using it in recent years. Mostly, it remains the mainstay of those who write cranky letters to the editor.

What gives “what part of no . . . ?” its kick is the fact that “no” is about the least dissectible utterance in the language. It doesn’t have any constituent parts. It can be used in different parts of speech, so it can be analyzed, but it is everywhere the ur-negation (except in a particular usage which is discussed in detail here). The only utterance more indivisible is an animal’s cry: a dog barking or a cat meowing (“What part of woof/meow don’t you understand?” are popular memes nowadays, so the kids tell me). This thrust is lost when nearly any other expression replaces “no.” Here’s a simple example: “What part of ‘Thou shalt not kill?’ don’t you understand?” Well, the hearer might not understand “thou” or “shalt,” or might want clarification of the precise meaning of “kill.” Alternatively, one may comprehend an expression perfectly well but fail to see why it’s relevant.

When wielded, “what part of no . . . ?” is a challenge. But when you look at the issue from the other side — that is, from the point of view of the one whose actions are provoking the questioner — it is quite often a red herring. For prohibitions to be effective, the hearer must recognize the authority of the issuer. Just because someone tells you “no” doesn’t mean they have the right to boss you around or imply that you’re stupid. The way to meet this question is to insist on its irrelevance.

Thanks to Dad, who unwittingly nudged this week’s expression my way. It always reminds me of a memorable episode I experienced with my friend Charles years ago. We were sitting in his yard minding our own business when a nearby homeowner barged out of his house and said to someone he considered a trespasser (not us), “What part of ‘get off my property’ don’t you understand?” The offender’s reply was a fine example of the response described in the previous paragraph: I’m not on your land, so you can’t tell me what to do. Bloodshed was averted even if hard feelings were not.

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