A Not Uninteresting Novella

As I noted in last week’s post, Orwell’s Politics and the English Language had a very pronounced effect on my enjoyment of reading Melville’s Billy Budd, Sailor and Benito Cereno. I was arrested surprisingly often by expressions that Orwell would have found objectionable. The not uncommonest objectionable language was Melville’s incessant use of “not un-” structures.

Orwell would that the “not un-” structure be laughed out of existence. “One can cure oneself of the not un- formation by memorizing this sentence: A not unblack dog was chasing a not unsmall rabbit across a not ungreen field.” As his example shows, this formula is usually a pretentious and asinine way of saying something that could be said more simply and directly. Why say that Billy’s expression was “not unlike that of a dog” rather than “like that of a dog”? What value is there in throwing in a double negative?

I strained my mind for a defense of this questionable structure. The best I could do is quote the great Welsh philosopher Tom Jones: “It’s not unusual to be loved by anyone.” Somehow, that line does not seem to mean the same thing as “it is usual to be loved by anyone.” For the not un- structure to work, there has to be some subtle difference between [adjective] and not un[adjective]. For some adjectives or adverbs, exist a sort of neutral middle ground in that space. But every example I try to put into words seems to fall apart. It seems like simple math; a = -(-a). There is no room for subtle distinctions.

And even if there is a significant meaning between [adjective] and not un[adjective], Melville’s use of the dubious formula never seems to convey such a subtle distinction. I was not unaffected by having to read so many not unwell written sentences from by a not unfamous author. Nevertheless, his stories are not unenjoyable.


Beer of the week: Krušovice Černé – This dark lager comes from one of the Czech Republic’s oldest breweries. In fact, the “1581” does not refer to the founding of the brewery, but to the year the brewery was offered for sale to Emperor Rudolf II. The beer itself is very dark, with a tan head that laces nicely on the glass. The dark roasted malts are evident in the aroma and in the flavor. However, the beer feels very thin and there simply is not a lot of flavor to it. It is not a bad beer, but I would hope for more from a 500-year-old operation.

Reading of the week: Billy Budd, Sailor by Herman Melville – This week’s chapter does not include any not un- sentences. It also does not include any of the characters of the story. It is a tangent on the old glory of naval warfare before clunky ironclads replaced shapely men-of-war and before “martial utilitarians” replaced the likes of Horatio Nelson, “the greatest sailor since our world began.”

Question of the week: Can you think of a situation where a not un- structure adds some meaning to a sentence?


8 Comments on “A Not Uninteresting Novella”

  1. Cole says:

    Well, it has a specific meaning and that’s why its appropriate. “Not uninteresting” means exactly that. It does not mean it was interesting. It only means that you didn’t find it uninteresting. It can also be used to say as politely as possible less-than-positive things about other people. “He is not an unintelligent person.” I am in generally opposed to the type of nit-picking Orwell practices because it is often based on a lack of nuance. That is not to say that I don’t enjoy reading Orwell.

    • The issue, as far as Orwell seems to be concerned, is that “un-” means “not.” There is no room for a middle neutral because “not un-” is a simple double negative. Not uninteresting means interesting because “uninteresting” does not mean anything other than “not interesting”. I struggled a lot with trying to find a way to express the sort of neutral middle that you are referring to, but it always comes down to ascribing a different meaning to “un-“, which I can’t seem to justify.

      • Cole says:

        Yea, I think I messed up and didn’t add the crucial element “I say.” “I wouldn’t say it was uninteresting.” “I wouldn’t say he is unintelligent.”

      • Cole says:

        But, then again, why not just say, “I wouldn’t say he was stupid.” etc. So I may just be mistaken.

      • Cole says:

        In any event “I say” + a double negative allows you to avoid saying the negative thing while implying it is still possible to say such things.

      • Cole says:

        Last Ditch Effort: Nevertheless, connotation matters in writing. Maybe the author doesn’t want to say “boring”? Something that is boring could be “not entertaining.” But maybe you want to stress “interesting”, hence “uninteresting.” And “Not uninteresting” may be better then “not not interesting.”

      • I understand what you are going through, Cole. It really does feel like “uninteresting” does not mean exactly the same thing as “not interesting”. George R.R. Martin frequently uses the expression “not unkindly” and it seems as if one can see the difference between “kindly” and “not unkindly”, but it is ephemeral; when pressed to express the difference, words fail. At least that is my experience trying to justify this construction.

  2. johnsfleming says:

    If I take your position to it’s logical conclusion, every single thing in the world must be describable as either [adjective] or un[adjective].

    I would say that not un is used to express the idea that something is neither one thing nor its opposite. So of course Orwell’s example makes the usage of not un ridiculous, for conventionally, something is either black or not, small or not, or green or not.

    “He is not an unintelligent man” emphasizes that you wouldn’t call him a idiot, but you also wouldn’t go so far as to call him a intelligent man either. As you say, I think it expresses the neutral middle ground between intelligent and unintelligent (since intelligence is more admitting of scale than, say, color).

    I suppose if you mean he is of middling intellect, why not say “he is of middling intellect” instead of “he is not an unintelligent man”, and in that regard I would argue that it is an effective rhetorical device to give the narrator the appearance of grasping for the right word, which gives the writing the flavor of live dialogue, rather than following a script, which in turn makes for a more engaging story.

    Exeter? I never entered her!

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