Saturday, May 14, 2011

I'm not being funny, but...

Of course, I can't exactly remember the conversation that inspired this post. But as we were leaving a café, Better Half said  I'm not being funny, but Costa's coffee has really gone downhill.† And I thought: that's the British idiom I'm going to cover next, because there is just so much Britishness in it.

In fact, in a 2009 paper in Discourse & Society, Judith Baxter and Kieran Wallace describe a particular use of it as:
the typically British idiom ‘I’m not being funny’ [used] to downplay the effect of a sensitive or non-politically correct comment
The phrase I'm not being funny but occurs five times in the 100-million-word British National Corpus (BNC) and zero times in the 425-million-word Corpus of Contemporary American English (both at The material in the BNC is 20+ years old, and since the phrase seems to be on the rise, I would expect it to occur more often these days. In 2008, it made a BBC list of 20 most hated clichés. There, a 'Rosie Spectacle' comments that it's "usually followed by a highly irritating and officious remark." Let's see if that's true.

All the BNC examples come from the 17.8-million-word spoken part of the corpus:
  1. I 'm not being funny but she can't stick up for herself, that girl can't
  2. Giles won't tell me but he definitely knows the two people that've laid her. Oh aren't they lucky gits. And I think that I 'm not being funny but I think that Jim did one.
  3. I 'm not being funny but I think that's actually maybe quite important, 
  4. The contract sorry is very specific. I 'm not being funny but we're nitpicking now at the difference between [...] site instructions and V Os
  5. And I 'm not being funny but when Malcolm did it, we would do that [a physical recount] almost two or three days after the stock taking if there were odd counts
Is I'm not being funny but preceding "sensitive", "irritating" or "officious" comments in each case? Well, it depends on what you are sensitive about. In some of these cases, there is clearly the potential for causing offen{c/s}e--for instance, in (1) the person might be saying something critical about a friend. In others, it's not clear that anyone would disagree with the statement, as in BH's comment about coffee, or in (3), a context in which all the interlocutors seem to be agreeing that it's important to be sensitive to the needs of the visually impaired at some event. In my experience, the minimal requirement for an I'm not being funny but prologue is that the speaker is expressing an opinion. The optimal contexts for using it are those in which the statement (a) could be interpreted as a complaint or a criticism or (b) might not be shared by everyone. In the coffee example, it was hardly the type of thing that would have offended me, so I was amused that he'd bothered to preface it in this way. But he still said it, he says, "So you won't think I'm petty. Out of some insecurity." It expresses a strange kind of plea to be taken seriously along with what seems like an implicit apology for having had an opinion.

This relates to various things that Kate Fox discusses in Watching the English. There are the "modesty rules"--i.e. cultural rules that enforce the appearance (but not necessarily the reality) of modesty and the importance of not seeming earnest, but instead always being ready to keep things light with humo(u)r. So, you have an opinion, but the need to appear modest means that you have to avoid sounding self-important. The avoidance of earnestness means that people are always ready to assume that you're joking if you seem het up* about something. So, what do you do if you want to state an opinion? You try to disguise it as a small fact ("she can't stick up for herself"), preface it with I'm not being funny but to signal that something controversial is coming, then let the listener fill in a lot of the opinion (e.g. 'she is weak and probably deserves what she gets if she won't stick up for herself'), so that you don't have to earnestly or controversially say it. 

I should say, one doesn't absolutely need the but in the phrase, but it's very often there. And we can say I'm not being funny to sincerely mean just that--for instance, as a protest when someone starts laughing after you've told them something sad. That's not the pre-emptive use--the 'let me put this negative opinion here' use--that one hears so much in the UK. That said, I think that in AmE, at least, one would be more likely in those more literal cases to say I'm being serious rather than the negated I'm not being funny. 

Blogger is acting very strange these days...I hope you'll be able to post comments below!

Postscript, the next morning:
I blogged in a rush last night, which isn't the best thing for working on something pragmatic.  Let me just add--the funny in I'm not being funny but can indeed (as some people have written to say) be read as the 'queer, peculiar' sense of the word. But that meaning is not unrelated to the 'humorous' meaning. It's best translated, I think, as 'I'm not trying to be difficult, but...'. But I do believe that the choice of funny in this phrase plays on this ambiguity--it's saying both 'I'm not making a joke' and 'I'm not being eccentric'. (Glad to see some comments are getting through--I know some others haven't. What's up with Blogger, eh**?)

† I belatedly found where I'd written down what BH said, so I've replaced my earlier 'the coffee is really disgusting' with the much more British understatement 'has gone downhill'. 'Has become disgusting to me' is what he meant though. This means I've also changed some further references to his statement. And, for the record, I like Costa's coffee and BH has been complaining about everyone's coffee lately...
* orig. BrE dialectal & AmE, now more common in BrE
** The eh is prevalent in Canadian English but also in my not-so-far-from-Canada AmE dialect.


Steven Capsuto said...

I think the U.S. functional equivalent is "I hate to say it, but..."

Amanda P. said...

A similar statement that is southern AmE is "Bless his/her heart, but..." As in, "Bless her heart, but was the hairdresser blind that day" or other similar statement.

John Cowan said...

I have always said het up, and indeed the OED2 calls it "originally dialect and U.S." (The verb het itself, for heated, is traced to 1480.)

Their first quotation, though it is by Kipling, is obviously an American — nay, a Vermonter! — speaking: "You look consider'ble het up. Guess you'd better cramp her under them pines, an' cool off a piece." It's from a story called "A Walking Delegate" in Kipling's 1894 collection The Day's Work. (Kipling lived in Vermont from 1892 to 1896, and also wrote The Jungle Books and Captains Courageous there.)

The next OED quotation is from 1902: "But you mustn't get yourself all ‘het up’ before you take the plunge", and it was written by the American G. H. Lorimer, an editor at the very American Saturday Evening Post. This page predates Kipling by a few years to 1886: "I don't het up easy." Still, it may well be true that the expression has become more British than American over the past century.

me said...

That phrase "I'm not trying to be funny but..." always reminds me of the vague disclaimer "I'm not racist, but..." - which usually indicates what is about to come out is going to be somewhat racist.

I guess it's a politeness thing to try and soften the impact of one's opinion, and to absolve the speaker of any negative opinions the other person might form.

Harry Campbell said...

Surely the US equivalent (now very common in the UK) is "Just sayin'". It follows rather preceding the statement it tries to defuse, but the effect is the same: here's something that may seem controversial or aggressive or bitchy, something that might normally cause ill feeling, but I've uttered the magic words so you can't blame me (hence the passing resemblance to "I'm not being racist but..."). It means roughly "I don't mean to start a fight over this, there's no malice, but the following does need to be said. Just sayin'."

I don't think "funny" here really means jocular, it's something more like snide or satirical or "clever". "Are you trying to be funny?" doesn't necessarily mean witty. "Don't get funny with me, sunshine."

alai said...

Such sentences warning of upcoming statements that one might find offensive are common across EN dialects, aren't they?

Some that I hear regularly amongst my EN-speaking friends of varying origins here in HK:

"Don't take this the wrong way, but..."
"I'm not saying this to be mean, but..."
"I don't mean any offence, but..."
"I'm'a let you finish, but..."

lynneguist said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
lynneguist said...

John Cowan--thanks. I couldn't get on to OED last night, but knew it was one of my dialects, so went from the fact that I found it in three on-line UK dictionaries(with Cambridge marking it as 'UK informal') and no US dictionaries! Will update...

And I'm going to update a bit more. Was rushing last night because blogger was being very creaky and unreliable...

Anonymous said...

Is using funny to mean odd or strange purely British? If someone said to me "That's funny." I might reply "Funny peculiar or funny ha ha?"

I think of this phrase as the speaker confirming, up-front, that they're not being perverse in making their complaint.

Anonymous said...

British speaker.

Go on, sign me in, Blogger!
openid not working

Doire said...

Sorry if this is a duplicate; my comments don't seem to be lasting more than a second or two.

Is using funny to mean odd or strange purely British? If someone were to say to me "That's funny!" I might reply "Funny peculiar or funny haha?"

I think of this phrase as indicating that the speaker does not mean to be perverse in making their complaint.
British speaker

lynneguist said...

@Doire: both meanings of 'funny' are found in both dialects.

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

I believe Blogger went down for several hours yesterday, which is why you have problems. Now this is where, if I were so minded, I'd say "I'm not being funny, but it's really not the best platform...." (except I don't happen to think that).

For me "I'm not being funny" in this context means "Please don't think I'm being strange/odd/eccentric/racist/offensive here, but..."

David Crosbie said...

It's quite a personal trope. Personally, I don't use it. It wouldn't fell like an authentic expression of me.

I think the reason is that I associate the interrogative
Are you being funny?
or, worse.
Are you trying to be funny?
as accusations. They imply that there's something (probably less than pleasant) behind what the other speaker has just said.

My chosen persona, my self-image is less judgemental and certainly less accusatory. And it doesn't go looking for those qualities in other people. The real me may be quite different, but I wouldn't know.

So, my preemptive defence would be
Dont' read anything into this, but
Don't read too much into this

A defence after speaking might be
No, I was just saying. [Just that — no Object expression]

Because of this, I hear I'm not being funny in a way that may not actually be intended by the speakers. Thus

1. I don't have an agenda to promote one girl and slander the other.

2. I'm not suggesting that Jim's a sexual predator, nor that he's such a wimp that he can only lay a girl that's as easy as this one.

3. I'm not criticising your view of how important it is. You're quite entitled to your own view. Let's not argue

4. This is not a criticism of you. I really do mean we are nit-picking.

5. This isn't a criticism of Malcolm — or even if it is the criticism is not the point of the story.

Whether the speakers meant what I thought or the more subtle interpretations you suggest, I think we can agree that I'm not being funny is a mitigation. Perhaps some speakers don't really know what they're mitigating or why. Like to be honest with you or a final rising intonation.

PS As well as corpus data, it would be interesting to see how the phrase is used (if at all) in crafted naturalistic drama.

Doris said...

I think that there may be another English (and I think I mean English, rather than any other UK nationality) trait at play here - that of our notion of politeness often requiring us to apologize for something that isn't under our control. I'm aware that this is such a factor that we are sometimes regarded as treating apologies lightly or insincerely by other nationalities (I have US, Aus and NZ friends). So I think that the "funny" in the phrase does indeed mean impertinent in the form of "don't get funny with me" and that we use it because we intend no impertinence, but being unable to control our audience, have to make apology, or at least call attention to our audience for what their reaction might be! And if you understand that elliptical reasoning, you're probably a long way in to comprehending the English character!

Shaun Clarkson said...

I wonder if there's a sense in some cases of "I'm not being ironic, do take this literally."

David Crosbie said...


I missed the sixth (i.e. first but unnumbered) example. It may not be what BH intended, but I would hear it as

This is nothing to do with the fact that you like Costa's coffee. All I'm saying is that recently ...

Solo said...

On the semantic meaning of 'funny' in tjis instance I'd have to concur with Doris and refute your interpretation entirely Lynneguist (sorry!)

The 'funny' in "I'm not being..." in my experience is neither humour nor peculiarity, it means being confrontational or antagonistic. As in "They started getting funny with us, so we left before it kicked off."

It does seem to be an implicit apology for a situation one can't control though, or for the actions of others. I have heard it used, somewhat bafflingly, in positive statements too though:

"I'm not being funny, but this is the best pineappple upside down cake I've ever had in my life!"

I couldn't tell you what purpose it serves there.

lynneguist said...

I think you're taking a more specific sense of 'peculiar' than I am, Solo. I grant that there's a 'funny' meaning 'disagreeable' sense, but it doesn't come from no where, and I think this is a good candidate for supporting the theoretical claim that the various 'senses' of polysemous words are not completely distinguishable one from the other. (I'm talking like this to Solo because I know she's learnt this stuff. Former student, doncha know.) I think that there's a reason why 'funny' is used in these cases to mean 'disagreeable' and that's because it's peculiar in the context of an avoiding-directness kind of culture to be confrontational.

Doris said...

I think that in terms of it being used positively, as in the case of the cake, it may be an impertinence to all other bakers of cakes that you've encountered before that their cake is not as good (and may indeed include your mother's offerings and no-one likes being dismissive to mothers) - still apologetic in my mind.

ms bias said...

There's a particular use of "funny" which is close to the odd/peculiar usage, but which is more about interpersonal relationships, as in, "she was just being a bit funny with me." That's how I hear "I'm not being funny, but -"

I don't say "not being funny with you", but if I want to offer a minor criticism without causing a huge fuss, I do say, "I'm not trying to have a go, but - "

David Crosbie said...

As well as corpus data, it would be interesting to see how the phrase is used (if at all) in crafted naturalistic drama.

An amazing short while after I wrote that, it came up in this afternoon's Saturday Play. It will be on the iPlayer here for seven days. Listen from 0:47:00.

The characters are a granddaughter and grandmother exchanging very intimate secrets. (The girls' parents also have big secrets; that's the theme of the play.) Both speakers are painfully aware of the generation gap on top of the embarrassment of what they're revealing. We have to assume that there are no empty phrases; the writer included I'm not being funny as a signal of character, and the production team didn't edit it out.

Sophie the granddaughter is making a cup of tea while Doreen, the grandmother, is trying to phone Sophie's parents to talk about Sophie's secret.

In the previous two little scenes we've heard Doreen say Maybe they've gone out and we've heard the parents decide not to answer the phone. They have things to talk about and it can't be Sophie because she always texts. And if it's Doreen it might be a put down.

DOREEN (ringing tone) Well, must have gone to the pub.
SOPHIE You think?
DOREEN You know, everything will work itself out.
SOPHIE I'm glad they weren't there.
SOPHIE I'm not being funny but...
DOREEN (interrupting) You want to do things your own way.
SOPHIE Well, not exactly, just ...
DOREEN Look, I won't say anything, unless you change your mind.

[At this point we the listeners know most of the secrets, but there's no clue as to Sophie's.]

I think it's reasonable to conclude that what would have followed I'm not being funny but would have been a request not to tell her parents after all. That's clearly what Doreen understood, and the rest of the play presents her as someone who does understand things.

My interpretation is that the phrases is planted as a signal of Sophie's character. In the middle of a conversation where both are trying not to embarrass, she gives an anticipatory mitigation of a request — that her grandmother won't try again to carry out her plan.

David Crosbie said...

It will be on the iPlayer here for seven days. Listen from 0:47:00.

You'll need to click the Listen now button.

MarcL said...

I don't think the conversational gambit is unique to British English, or restricted to several dialects. My personal experience of such remarks includes: "That's a nice tie...Did you get it at a garage sale?" "I'm not being funny, but," and its many variations are meant to give the speaker permission to voice an opinion which may be counter to the prevailing consensus, or, on a personal level, hurtful. As a semantic device, it also gives the speaker permission for a conversational exit plan, and often may be followed by "I'm not saying that you should agree with me," or "I really wasn't trying to hurt your feelings." The habit of understatement may be considered more idiosyncratic of the British than of other groups, but in my experience Americans of a certain intellectual and socio-economic stratum seem to indulge in it just as much. I grant you that the American persona is considered brash and over-enthusiastic by some, while the British persona is seen as diffident, but in my opinion (only my opinion) those characteristics are more restricted to certain sub-groups in both cultures than not.

David Crosbie said...

We talk of the opposition Funny ha ha or funny peculiar?, but these senses are syntactically identical. We don't say

This new stand-up is being funnier than the last one.
The impression he left was being a funny one. Neither one thing nor the other.

We don't even use progressive BE for a temporary state here. Not

That's better! You're being funny now.
Although things are being funny right now, they'll soon get back to normal.

I wonder whether the origin of is being funny lies in the classroom. This is an accusation that teachers are (or were) apt to make of pupils — covering a fair range of (suspected) inappropriate speech.

The fact that we use is acting with funny peculiar but not with funny ha ha seems to suggest that the sense of funny in is being funny is closer to the former than the latter. Shaun's suggested paraphrase of ironic can be used with the progressive is being ironic, but surely that's not a question of ironic humour.

Anonymous said...

I'm not being funny's Judith Baxter, not Butler.

lynneguist said...

I knew that, but didn't type it! Correcting it now, thanks.

Ken Brown said...

I think this usage is getting more frequent among people I meet. I don't remember it from before about 20 years ago (I'm from Brighton but now live in London)

There are variants - "I don't mean to be funny, but..." seems common.

Harry Campbell said...

I'd second the idea that this is a really quite recent idiom. It's hard to date when one gradually became aware of something but it feels much less than 20 years ago to me.

vp said...

@Ken and Harry:

More anecdotal evidence that this usage is recent: I emigrated from Britain to the US in 1997 and I'd never heard of it before this blog post.

Hmmm ... I feel quite old!

lynneguist said...

Nevertheless, the five corpus examples come from 1990, so it existed then...but would you have heard it? Let me try out my rudimentary math(s) skills:

Five times in 17.8 million words (in the spoken part of the BNC), means it was coming up nearly once every 6 million words. If one goes with the estimate that an average person hears 50,000 words a day, then a UK-based person in 1990 should have heard the phrase on average about 3 times per year. But, of course, it might have been limited to certain circles at that time, so some people might've heard it a lot more than others.

Pera SD said...

Here in South Central Pennsylvania, people will say, "Not to be rude, but..."

If I heard someone say, "I'm not being funny" the way used in the post, I would be a bit baffled, thinking, "Why are you telling me that? I could see it wasn't even funny in the first place."

Johnny E said...

It always amuses me how it gets used, like a lot of similar "no offence meant"-type phrases, immediately before highly, obviously, directly insulting statements. "I'm not bein' funny, mate, but fuck off!"

Actually, uses like that make me wonder if it doesn't (at least sometimes) mean the ha-ha sense of funny. As Kate Fox's book describes in detail, we young British men are somewhat fond of using utterly foul language with our best friends, and that sometimes makes it difficult in situations when you really -do- want to insult them. So maybe in a situation like that it could mean "I'm not bantering with you right now, I really think you're being a [expletive of your choice]".

Solo said...

Not being funny John, but shut up you plank. (x)

About Last Weekend said...

Brilliant, I forgot about that one now I'm in the States. Will have to start using that when I need to be passive aggressive. Notice the meany girls in my daughters class always preface snarky comments with "not being mean but"... As Amanda says too, love the "Bless her". Forgot about that one too...

Amy Stoller said...

The AmE version I hear most often (in NYC) is "No offense, but ... " followed by an offensive remark.

"I hate to say it" is indeed another one, though at least sometimes said truly more in sorrow than in anger.

A benign cousin in my neck of the woods would be "Not for nothin' but ... " which seems to have become a pet peeve for many who don't understand it. It means the speaker thinks something is important, but the listener is free to take it or leave it.

Anonymous said...

Coming a bit late to the discussion, but I seem mostly to hear it as "I'm not being funny or anything", which adds another layer of diffidence.

Andrew Tyndall said...

Concerning modesty rules:

in AmE, one often hears " pun intended..." even if no pun has, in fact, been perpetrated, but as a rider on a play on words, or a double entendre, or idiom.

In BrE, such modesty is routinely expressed by " it were...", informing the listener that the speaker is aware of the possibility of a corny or cliched linguistic usage.

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

Or "In a manner of speaking", which is what my mother added when she realised she'd just told one of my friends that my father's hip "was on its last legs"! He has since had a new one.

Solo said...

A bloke on The Apprentice last night said "I'm not being funny, that's brilliant." Or words to that effect. No 'but' and intended as a sincere compliment. Baffling.

Unknown said...

I'm not being funny but...this idiom tends to be used almost exclusively by people from working class backgrounds in the UK. I like to tease my girlfriend who is fond of using it. I think the person who commented that it's very similar to saying "I'm not racist". I think it's an example of false modesty that is quite prevalent in British culture. I'm British, for what it's worth. There's another idiom.