WordPlay

Elvis and the Double Negative

You Ain’t  Nothing But a  Hound Dog, Elvis Presley’ s classic rock’n’roll hit from 1956, is also a classic example of what grammarians call the “double negative.”  “So what?” today’s students may ask, “what difference does it make?”

The difference is this: in 1956 most students knew it was a double negative.  Most students of today, on the other hand, have probably never even heard of the term “double negative.”  For their benefit, I’ll try to explain…

Whether Elvis realized it or not, his famous lyric is not actually calling anyone a “hound dog.”  In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

This is the very essence of the “double negative” in English.  You Ain’t Nothing But a Hound Dog literally means “You are Not nothing but a hound dog.”  [‘Not nothing” being the double negative at issue] In other words, you are something other than a hound dog.

Another example of this paradox may be found in Clarence “Frogman” Jackson’s hit song, Ain’t Got No Home [1956].  If you “ain’t got No home,” logically speaking, you must have some home, somewhere.

As noted above, average students 57-years ago, were taught the simple concept of the double negative.  Even Elvis, perhaps,  realized  that his hound dog metaphor was grammatically “wrong.”

Fortunately for his millions of fans, he also knew a good a good song title when he heard one.  He was Elvis, after all.    -E.S.

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