“Not so Thinly”

by admin on February 7, 2012

I’m going to go off-topic today to post a little gripe about language. As you know, I’m a writer, so it pains me to see words used to mean things that they aren’t supposed to mean!

I read an article this morning with a subhead: “Conservatives criticize automaker’s Super Bowl ad as a thinly veiled endorsement of the federal government’s auto bailouts.” That subhead is CORRECT (linguistically; I’m not talking about the content). It means what the writer meant to say.

However, the body of the article says, in paragraph four, “Conservatives… criticized the ad as a not-so-thinly veiled endorsement…”

Well, which is it? Thinly veiled or not-so-thinly veiled? Here’s a clue. Not-so-thinly veiled means THICKLY veiled, and that is NOT what the writer meant to say!

I think that the writer was conflating two phrases: “thinly veiled” and “not-so-veiled.” And he figured that if he put them together, then it makes it stronger. A “long long road” is longer than a “long road.” But the word “not” doesn’t work that way. “Not not veiled” does not mean “even less veiled.” It means veiled!

However, it turns out that this hapless Associated Press writer has a whole lot of company. A Google search for “thinly veiled” produces 3.8 million hits. A search for “not-so-thinly veiled” comes up with 1.6 million hits! Since “thinly veiled” should count these, too, we can infer that the number of times people wrote the correct “thinly veiled” is actually only 2.2 million. In other words, the correct phrase is barely more common than the incorrect one. Just for an example, a poker player named Change100 posts this entry called “A Not-So-Thinly Veiled Brag” about her first big tournament success, which is actually a thinly veiled brag or perhaps a not-veiled brag.

Really, there’s a bigger language moral behind all of this. The problem is that both “thinly veiled” and “not-so-thinly veiled” are clichés. When a phrase become a cliché, people stop thinking about what it means and how it came to have that meaning. Therefore, my broader message is: Don’t use clichés! (Please.) Think about what you’re writing and try to say it in a different way from everybody else.

Thanks. End of rant, end of off-topic post.

P.S. I accidentally clicked “publish” before I had finished writing the last paragraph, so if anybody out there got the not-quite-finished version, sorry about that!

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Howard Goldowsky February 8, 2012 at 7:54 am



Rob February 8, 2012 at 1:15 pm

An interesting observation and comment Dana. Who is to blame here for the misuse of the phrase? The editor or the writer?
I suspect that over time with a greater number of barely literate people blogging and tweeting away about anything that flows through their consciousness we will see further degrading, not only of good english language usage, but in most other languages as well.
But such perpetrators will most likely take refuge behind “poetic license”.


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