At first blush, “no” does not appear to be the kind of word whose meaning you can monkey with. For one thing, there is its length. At just two letters and one syllable, it lacks the pliable properties of longer words. You can’t stuff stuff inside it. (You can say “unfreakingbelievable,” but you cannot say “nfreakingo.”) You can’t mangle it, à la “misunderestimate” or (the finest example I’ve heard lately) “haphazardous.” On the contrary, it is so simple and self-contained that it is a holophrasm, a word that can serve as a complete sentence. (Holophrasms aren’t common in English, but any verb in command form can be holophrastic—“Go,” “Help,” “Run”—and babies just learning to talk use single words to express complex ideas all the time, albeit without regard to grammar: “Ball,” “Up,” “Want.”) Moreover, the word has the apparent fixity and clarity of a logical operator: like “if,” “then,” “and,” “or,” and “not,” “no” seems designed to be unambiguous. When we ask, in the face of excessive pestering, “What part of ‘no’ don’t you understand?,” what we mean is: “Unless you are a complete cretin, there is no part of ‘no’ that you could possibly misunderstand.”

Kathryn Schulz – What Part of “No, Totally” don’t you understand? (New Yorker)

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