Ken Wais 6/22/03
I am mystified, somewhat irritated, but amused with the usage of the phrase the last thing in English. This phrase is difficult to give a rhetorical classification. The best Iíve been able to surmise is itís a form of intensification. Itís not irony, or sarcasm though it seems close to both these constructions. The intent of English speakers when using this construction is to demonstrate the opposite of what it asserts. Thus, it is much like a sarcastic statement. Sarcastic constructions have connotative meanings that are opposite to their denotative meanings. For instance, take the statement: Yeah, youíre my great friend that informed on me. The denotative value of this sentence is opposite to its intended value. It literally declares someone is a good friend because he informs on the subject. But to any English-speaking listener, it's clear that the intention is this person is not a good friend. Here we have a textbook example of sarcasm. Now, lets take this turn of phrase the last thing. Here is an example of its usage: The last thing I want to do is hurt you. Now, this isnít sarcasm. It could be a form of irony. But its denotative intent is not really opposite to its connotative meaning. I understand that the speaker is intending to say he never wants to hurt the person to whom heís speaking. but, why say itís the last thing you would do? If you donít want to hurt this person, then what does the ordinality of the event have to do with it? Isnít that strange? Telling someone that the last thing you want to do is hurt them doesnít seem like a good way to deny ever wanting to hurt them. Suppose you only had two things to do. In that case, in just 2 steps youíd hurt the person. Or even better: The13th billionth thing I want to do is hurt you. In the two things example, the listener might say: Well, since you got two things to do, youíre going to hurt me pretty quickly? In the numerical example, the listener could say well if itís the 13th billionth thing you want to do, then in all likelihood you wonít get around to it and Iím safe.
Why not say: The only thing I don't want to do is hurt you. In this case, your meaning is unambiguous, though over-dramatic
Who started this senseless construction? I get the image of a guy scaling down a list of things to do, and when he gets down to the bottom, the last thing he would do is the worst thing. But regardless of the nature of the thing, naming the thing as the last in order should not connote it is never to be realized. Why that doesnít make any sense. I donít understand this usage. It might be a form of intensification. I think this was the intent, when the original blockhead made this statement. I know this is an idiomatic phrase. But, it just bothers me to the nth degree, you know. He (or she) was trying to show how much he or she didnít intend what was being said. But, why use sequence of events to intensify your negative? Iíd like to get in a time machine and go back and find the first usage of this phrase. Then confront this person, and ask him why the hell did he say this insane remark. I bet, heíd say something like: Oh, I donít know it just seemed like a smart way to say how much you didnít like something. I would think of how this silly phrase has gone down in English linguistic history and spread far and wide, and how it makes no logical sense, and bothers me like a hiccup. Heíd say: What seems to be the problem? His lack of concern would incense me even more. Iíd say: What seems to be the problem? The problem is this phrase is meaningless. It makes no sense! And now everybody this side of St. Louie is saying it without ever thinking of what theyíre really saying, you living jackass! Iíd punch his lights out, get back in my time machine and come right back here.† It might seems obvious native English-speakers that this phrase is referring to the the last thing is meant to signify that the worst thing one would do should be the last thing one would, thus the phrase.† But, consider this sentence: Please, please before you leave make sure the last thing you do is set the security AD-231 lock-out option the cash transfer FTP script.† Here is a correct use of the phrase, it is expressing that the last thing to do is most important and not negative association.† And much of what we do last is not negatively associated with events in our lives; we go to sleep, leave work, finish a meal, part from sexual union, kiss a bad job good-bye, leave a boring party, say good-bye to the winter, spend the last day in prison, finish a math proof, get out of a meeting that has lasted 2 hours, should I go on?† The association of the ordinal last with the worst, thus most unwanted occurrence just doesnít make sense to me.† It is probably an English culture aspect that traces back to the industrial revolution, or some such connection.† Back when working 10 hours days in textile factories led people to wish for the last thing they had to complete and associate it with the worst.
Little matters like this really get to me. Hereís a way to get back at people when they use this phrase. The next time somebody says to you: Well, you know the last thing I wanna see happen is that. You should say: Really, well whatís the 3rd thing you wanna see happen? I bet the person will look at you questioningly stop and say: What? You can then dismiss the comment with: Oh, nothing.
As a final word, it could be the association of finality and death with notions of last things that gives us the negative indication for this phrase.† If itís last in order then itís bad because we die in the end.† This would be the linear implication.
If the last thing, makes you a little upset, you can take solace in knowing that this colloquialism predates us. We learn it as we mature to adulthood and unfortunately more often than not, we use it without considering its meaning. But, the next two words are misused with such frequency; a purist of the language might want to banish from the country these users en masse. The only favorable thing about this development is itís somewhat restricted to a very select group of English speakers: American teenagers. This includes teenagers of all races in this country, especially teenage girls, though the boys are advent abusers also. I have heard adults, for instance, Southern Californian women rolling these ear-sores off their tongues. Though, the majority of misuse occurs with teenagers. It seems these kids have decided to use forms of the infinite verb to go and the comparative preposition like, for meanings they were never intended. They use go or goes to indicate a person responds in speech. Here is an example: And I go: no I am not gonna do that, then he goes: why not? And I go: Ďcause, itís gross. Then he goes: but it would be cool. How many times have you heard this kind of almost infantile babble in a shopping mall? You can replace all the go or goes in the preceding sentence with say or says to get somewhat correct grammatical usage.
Then there is the word like. This term is so grossly misused, if there were a home for battered words, like would be a long term resident. You've no doubt heard of child-molester, well now meet word-molester. I overheard a teenage girl misusing the word like, like a chronic word-molester just a few days ago.
Come on, Iím like, Tanya why did you do that?, she likes oh forgit you, and Iím like, forgit you too. Then she like rolls her eyes and stuff, so Iím like donít nobody care Ďbout you rollin' your little eyes. I'm like: please, then she's like: I ain't gonna talk to you no more. I'm like: I don't care, pleasssse. She's like so immature ain't she?
Itís this kind of speech, that I definitely donít LIKE. I stood there listening to the conversation, thinking does this young girl know what sheís saying? Apparently so, since the two of them went on, giggling and exchanging these broadsword butcherings of English, until I walked away, overcome with disgust. I would LIKE to have jumped in and said:
Hey hey hey wait a minute! Will you leave that word alone, stop abusing that poor little word. Has that word done anything you? Now leave it alone. Then I'd turn to the word in mind-space of course and say: Are you alright word? The word would whimper LIKE a little injured puppy and say to me: uh-huh. don't let'em come near me again Ken? I sure won't, poor little word, I won't. Let me getcha to the word trama center, and getchu back in context and everything. Poor little comparative preposition or noun expressing affection, its only crime is existing. Don't cry word, Ken's here. Then I'd turn back to the two girls and say: Let me tell you two something, if I catch either one of you bubble-chewing, word-molesting, brats abusing this word again, I'm gonna take you both down to the word abuse detention center and have'em lock ya up for 6 months. And when you come out, I'll personally cut your tongues out.
The phrase Iím like seems to be used to mean I say or I said. Though, it is also used to mean I replied. What is so maddening about this misusage is the frequency of its utilization. A person spewing profanity in public places offends most of us. It is even more unbearable when the person uses it constantly. The same revulsion applies to a grammatical misconstruction. I wish we had grammar prisons, where these kids could be sentenced for a few months and made to clean up their diction.
Like is also misused when people employ it to register shock or surprise rather than being a substitute for the verb to say. Iíve listened to people tell me of experiences that were complete surprises them and in the course of explaining this surprise the word like is invariably uttered as an indicator or even intensifier of this surprise.
Here is an example:
I had just started this job the day before, and then on the second day, my boss comes to me and says: Carol I want you create the derivative accounts with growth trending for these 5 clients. I was likeÖ huhÖ I mean I just started the day before I was like?!
Iím sure you get the picture.
P.S. I was wrong, people of all ages are using it in this country and around the English-speaking world. .
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