Rallying the Tropes

by Karen Jeynes

Humans really are remarkable. We’ve put a rover on Mars, freefallen from the edge of space, allowed the Kardashians to become international celebrities, and developed an odd quirk of language I like to think of as a verbal “Pre-emptive Strike”. It’s a clause which we put at the beginning of a sentence to ostensibly apologise for what is about to come without for one second meaning it, a tactical manoeuvre in a conversational war.

The first zinger is “with respect”, which means, as you may have guessed “I don’t respect you, but I should, so I’m going to excuse my disrespectful remarks by prefacing them with this meaningless nicety.” If you don’t respect someone to such an extent that you actively dislike them, you can extend this to “with all due respect” or even “with all due respect sir/your honour”. The longer the phrase, the further the distance between the amount of respect expected and the amount actually accorded.

Next on the list is “I’m not racist, but”. In fact this is so rampant that there’s an entire twitter account devoted to it – go and read @alittleracist’s timeline if you’d like to despair just a little more about the human race. Following in the pattern, what “I’m not racist, but” means is “I know it’s wrong to be racist so I’m going to couch this racist thing I’m about to say in emphasizing how not racist I really am. Only, seriously though, those people…” Again, in cases of extreme oncoming racism this can be lengthened to “It’s not like I’m racist or anything, but”.

You can wash, rinse, and repeat the above paragraph to fit “I’m not sexist, but” and my own personal one-size-fits-all favourite, “I’m not trying to be an asshole, but”.

For those about to interfere inappropriately in someone else’s life, usually someone they have only a nodding acquaintance with, we have an entire arsenal to choose from. There’s “I don’t mean to intrude”, “Not to butt in” and “I always mind my own business”. These are inevitably followed by judgmental and sanctimonious comments which most sane people would hesitate foisting upon their own children, let alone virtual strangers.

Pedants are fond of “not to put too fine a point on it”, before rattling off some minutiae which they are only privy to because they have read some arcane tome published in 1827 at least three times a year since they first joyously discovered it at age 15. Other users of this verbal shield are people who are pulling rank, and subtly pointing out that whatever the logic of the argument might be, they have a larger metaphorical penis.

There’s the counter-strike too, one which demands the social nicety from the hearer. It’s “I hope you’ll forgive me, but”. Usually some affronting comment is made thereafter, but the recipient’s head is spinning from the inherent polite instinct of “of course I’ll forgive you” and “hang on, that really isn’t nice at all, goshdarnit.” Usually this combination serves to at least defuse some of their anger.

And there’s the unpology, “I’m sorry, but”. No matter what is actually said after the but what is meant is “I’m not sorry”.

Some people have developed a sneaky double bluff where they use their wordy weapon of choice with a level of sarcasm designed to prevent people from calling them out. The logic here is “well of course I didn’t mean it, I was being sarcastic.” I’m a huge fan of sarcasm, but it is often used as a shield for perpetrators of shittiness to hide behind. “I plead sarcasm, your honour,” would be the most common response if we had a social decency court of law.

However there is one lexicographical loophole which is so tricksy, it backfires. People who use it think they are providing a soft linguistic cushion on which to fall back after they launch the verbal grenade which follows, but in fact, it’s a whoopee cushion. “I’m not trying to be funny, but” – well, congratulations. You’ve succeeded. You’re not funny at all. Thank goodness you fell on that whoopee cushion so I can laugh at the fart noise.


More by this author: Those cursed four letter words, A moving picture speaks a thousand words

Karen Jeynes

About Karen Jeynes

Karen Jeynes (@karenjeynes) is a playwright, dramaturg, wordsmith, proponent of the Oxford comma, and collector of words. She has been known to rub her hands with girlish glee on discovering a new one. She experiences high levels of angst over misplaced apostrophes, sometimes having to have a bit of a lie down. She is perilously partial to puns. And also alliteration.


14 Responses to “Rallying the Tropes”

  1. Reblogged this on @Floptajoe and commented:
    Are you a word nerd?

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