Unintended meaning?

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Sun May 30 00:41:14 UTC 2010

At 10:48 AM -0400 5/29/10, Alison Murie wrote:
>The NYT online this morning has an item on the consequences of the
>spill. Headline: "Island's Trout Rodeo Victim of the Spill, and That's
>Not the Least of It."
>Is this another "I could care less" that I don't know about, or is it
>simply a mistake?
This is interesting; I'd forgotten to think about it earlier in the
day, but then I came upon the headline in my hard copy of the Times.
(Well, it's still pretty soft, but...)

My sense is that I wouldn't have noticed a problem with it if Alison
hadn't pointed it out.  In fact, the compositional meaning makes
sense too:  the trout rodeo is really not the least of the problems,
they're having (cf. "last but not least") down there in Grand Isle.
But so does the other, pleonastic meaning--the trout rodeo really
*is* the least of their problems, or it might as well be, compared
with the fear "that BP is is not moving fast enough to clean up its
mess in the marshes".  Maybe "...and that's the least of it" would
have made more sense on balance in this context, but the version with
the negative doesn't seem as weird to me as "I could care less" would
have seemed before it became virtually standard.  In any case, it's
not an isolated malapropism--it's easy to find many other examples of
"not the least of my/your/his worries/problems" that can be
interpreted with a similar dual interpretation.  (And I think with or
without the negative, "least" carries the major stress; if *not* is
stressed, as in the above headline, only a compositional reading is
possible--it really isn't the least of it.)


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