Friday, August 19, 2011

The Bee Gees: I Can't See Nobody

For our Friday Flipside, we feature a Bee Gees’ song from 1967: “I Can’t See Nobody.” It was the “B” side of their first American (and British) single, “New York Mining Disaster 1941.” If that title doesn’t ring a bell, that top 15 hit had the following lyrics: “Have you seen my wife, Mr. Jones? Do you know what it’s like on the outside? Don’t go talking too loud - you’ll cause a landside, Mr. Jones.” It is one of those tunes where the title is never mentioned in the lyrics.

While the “A” side was the hit, the flip has the obvious hook: “I Can’t See Nobody.” The hook and its corresponding title have bothered grammarians since its release. Which begs the question, “When did double negatives become verboten in English?”

In many languages, double negatives connote a strong negative – not a negation of the negative completely. In the lingua franca of the hoi polloi, we use double negatives in the same sense. When communicating danger to our children, we often us “no, NO!” as an emphatic warning. What do we tell children when they do something wrong, they did a “no no.” It isn’t just a “no,” but rather it is a “no no.”

Grammar aside, it’s a haunting song. There ain’t nobody who does it better – no, none.

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