Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Willy Wonka: Darn Guy

Posted by Neal on July 23, 2005

If you see Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (the movie, not the book), this is what will be running through your head for a few days afterward:

Willy Wonka, Willy Wonka, the amazing chocolatier!
Willy Wonka, Willy Wonka, everybody give a cheer!
He’s modest, clever, and so smart, you barely can restrain it;
With so much generosity, there is no way to contain it,
To contain it, to contain to contain to contain…

Willy Wonka, Willy Wonka, he’s the one that you’re about to meet.
Willy Wonka, Willy Wonka, he’s a genius who just can’t be beat.
The magician and the chocolate whiz,
The best darn guy who ever lived,
Willy Wonka, here he is!

It’s been going through Adam’s head, too. Even though he had to cover his eyes and leave the theater as the squirrels were dragging Veruca Salt down toward the garbage chute, he was there long enough to hear the Willy Wonka song, and while Doug and I watched the rest of the movie, Adam and his mom went and bought the soundtrack to it. He’s been having us play it in the car for the past week, and absorbing all the words on the liner notes.

After a few days of hearing and reading this song every day, Adam had a question: “What does darn mean?”

I said, “Uh, it means… well, OK, he’s the best darn guy that ever lived means, ‘He’s the best guy that ever lived, and I really mean it!'”

Having had to explain it that way, it occurred to me that the meaning of darn applied to the entire proposition that WW is the best guy that ever lived, but was syntactically part of just the noun phrase the best darn guy. It’s kind of like a really for use with nouns:

  • He’s {really / *darn} the best guy who ever lived.
  • He {really / *darn} is the best guy who ever lived.
  • He is the best {*really / darn} guy who ever lived.

This all reminded me of an article on “nominal tense” by Rachel Nordlinger and Louisa Sadler in the December 2004 issue of Language. The main idea of the article is that properties such as tense or mood are usually marked on the verb in most languages, but there are languages that mark nouns with them. (Mark Liberman talks about the article here and has a link to it here.) Darn, then, which I suppose I’d call a kind of mood marker, is one of the relatively few of them in English that apply to nouns instead of verbs.

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