Yes No Language

In “No,” Ben Zimmer’s latest contribution to his On Language column (, March 15, 2010), yes and no are examined through the lens of Congressional discourse and pop culture. Zimmer lists some associations:

yes no, agreement opposition, positivity negativity, acceptance denial, getting to yes, party of no

From my personal collection, here are a few greatest hits of yes and no memorabilia:

A (lost) sticker bearing the phrase, “The Land of Yes.” It was produced by Trillium Press, which is now SF Electric Works. The motto conveyed a commitment to helping artists realize their projects.

Ugo Rodinone’s “Hell Yes!” architectural signage for the New Museum. Rounded text + rainbow stripes + in an arc = unabashed enthusiasm.

My first word was “no”—a troubling fact for an aspiring optimist—but it turns out, I’m not alone. Zimmer informs:

…the power of no is even more primal, perhaps because it is so often among the first words that English speakers learn as children.

Zimmer also discusses yes and no in terms of the “up/down” vote, an orientational metaphor with its own set of associations, as examined by linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in Metaphors We Live By (U. of Chicago Press, 1980):

happy sad and other dyads

Some of these orientational metaphors cohere. For example, a person with high status might expect being in positions of control more often. Good, virtue and life/health are obviously linked. But it would be a mistake to assume that all of the concepts associated with up or down are necessarily coherent. Lakoff and Johnson describe a discrepancy between two metaphors associated with up and down, unknown (up) and known (down) does not cohere with finished (up, as in “the crate’s buttoned up” or “the shoot’s wrapped up”) and unfinished (down).

To this I might add:

transcendent mundane, concept material, ephemeral quotidian

Visual Thesaurus

I love this thesaurus for the visually inclined. The concept map is a brilliant way to group similar meanings and identify specific words.


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