lame denials

Arnold Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Fri Sep 14 21:12:21 UTC 2001

has anyone studied denials of intent in speech?  i have in mind,
specifically, implausible disavowals of import, as in the following
three examples (of rather different types):

1.  speaker refers to rep. barney frank of massachusetts as "barney
fag", with evident pleasure in the childishly insulting deformation of
the name, but later denies intent to insult by claiming it was a slip
of the tongue.

2.  speaker refers to a female colleague of japanese descent as a
"slant-eyed cunt", but later denies intent to insult by maintaining
that he sometimes just talks nonsense.

3.  speaker asserts that members of the aclu, abortionists, pagans,
feminists, gays, and lesbians must bear some responsibility for the
atrocities in new york and washington, because their attempts to
"secularize America" "make God mad", but a spokesperson denies hateful
intent by saying these remarks were "taken out of context".

i do *not* have in mind ordinary speech errors, or misspeakings that
arise from cluelessness, or even speech actually designed to
accommodate plausible denial (like a MUCK FICHIGAN bumper sticker),
but things whose intent and import can be discerned by any reasonable
hearer, yet are disavowed after the fact.

and my question was whether such lame denials have been studied - or,
at least, collected and classified - by anyone.

arnold (zwicky at

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