Same sound, opposite meaning

Mark A Mandel mam at THEWORLD.COM
Sun May 12 21:34:08 UTC 2002

On Sun, 12 May 2002, sagehen wrote:

#I agree that the expression hardly exists outside this almost entirely
#negative set of idioms.  It occurs to me that the /anything/ sense
#might be felt a little more strongly in a (rhetorical) question e.g.:
#"do you think he did diddly (or squat) for us?"  In which case, the
#Janus quality could still be claimed.

This is already covered by the concept of negative polarity items. Damn,
I wish I could remember citations, but this was well covered in my
graduate linguistics program at Berkeley in the seventies. Idiom chunks
like these, "a red cent", "stir a finger", and so on exhibit all these
properties, correlating with their inability to appear outside a context
of negation, whether explicit or implied by a question. (I believe this
is the origin of French "pas", originally and still also meaning 'step',
in the completely general negator "ne...  pas".)

-- Mark A. Mandel
   Linguist at Large

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