"make no mistake"

Arnold Zwicky zwicky at STANFORD.EDU
Fri Nov 14 15:21:39 UTC 2008

someone interviewed on BBC World News yesterday (i heard it on the
radio, but didn't catch the name of the speaker, and haven't been able
to find the quote on-line):

   You should make no mistake this is anything else but a war.

i had a moment of bafflement, since for me

   make no mistake (about it): X  OR  X, make no mistake (about it)

is a way of strongly asserting X; as the Cambridge Dictionary of
American Idioms (2003) has it, 'do not imagine that I am wrong'.

but in the quote above, we have "make no mistake" with a "that"-
complement conveying a negative assertion -- in this particular case,
'you should not think that this is anything else but a war'.

the examples of "make no mistake that ..." that i've googled up seem
all to be positive -- hypotactic versions of the paratactic uses i'm
most familiar with.

(yes, the "else" in "anything else but a war" would be treated as a
pleonastic by many usage critics, but that's a separate point from the
one i'm making here.)

students of malnegation: what think you?

bonus from the Bushisms literature: a 2004 rant on Slate against "make
no mistake".  (looking at the huge number of hits for "make no mistake
(that)", from a great variety of sources, i don't detect the tone that
so annoys Timothy Noah.  but then he heard what he was listening for.)


Against "Make No Mistake"
Time to fight back against the worst Bushism of all.

By Timothy Noah
Posted Monday, May 17, 2004, at 6:38 PM ET

I do not count myself among those who hate President Bush. But I do
hate the expression, "make no mistake." It's a bully-boy phrase, meant
to warn that the speaker really means what he is saying. But shouldn't
we always mean what we say—or, if we're politicians, at least pretend
to? Even if you buy into the phrase's swagger, it isn't half so
creative as "read my lips," which speechwriter Peggy Noonan put into
George H.W. Bush's mouth when he promised not to raise taxes. ("Read
my lips" had to be retired after Bush pèrebroke that promise in 1990,
but that's hardly Noonan's fault.) "Read my lips" is funny—unless, of
course, it's spoken to a deaf person—and swagger always comes across
better when it's leavened with humor. "Make no mistake," on the other
hand, are the words not merely of a bully, but of a bully who lacks
panache. It practically begs for a defiant response. Listen, buddy,
I'll make a mistake whenever I goddamn well feel like it. And, of
course, it's especially galling coming from Bush, whose presidency has
been one long string of mistakes, most especially the one we're
currently grappling with in Iraq.

The current president did not invent the phrase, "make no mistake,"
but he uses it a lot. The search engine for the White House Web site
displays 227 instances, and, even discounting for the fact that some
of these MNMs emanated from Bush apparatchiks like former press
spokesman Ari Fleischer and Tom Ridge, I feel certain that's a gross



The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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