Ask AZ: there there

From a science reporter yesterday, a query about where the expression there there came from. My answer came in two parts, one having to do with the comforting or reassuring there, there, the other with Gertrude Stein and Oakland (because my correspondent specifically mentioned them).

1. Comforting.  This there, there goes back way before Gertrude Stein. The relevant subentry of OED2 for adverbial there:

7. Used interjectionally, usually to point (in a tone of vexation, dismay, derision, satisfaction, encouragement, etc.) to some fact, condition, or consummation, presented to the sight or mind. Hence there-there vb. trans., to soothe or comfort by saying these words.

The first cite for this use of there (just one there) is from 1535 (Coverdale’s English Bible) and is none too clear. Multiple there occurs at least twice in Shakespeare, but relatively clear cases of the comforting use are later:

1872   Routledge’s Every Boy’s Ann. 514/1   ‘There, there’, my poor father answered, ‘it is not that’.

1938   D. Runyon Furthermore viii. 159   He..starts whispering, ‘There, there, there, my itty oddleums.’

And eventually there is quotative verbing of there, there:

1968   J. Sangster Touchfeather xv. 180,   I was sobbing my heart out on his chest and he was there there-ing me all over the place

The uses in this subentry are all over the place; the entry mixes many different effects, of which the soothing use is just one (that use is very different from the defiant use in exclamatory “so THERE!”, for example). But it’s clearly been around for some time. (A variant is there, now, as in “There, now, honey, things will get better.”)

2. Stein – Oakland. From my correspondent:

I see that it seems to have originated with Gertrude Stein who said that “there was no there there” about trying to go back to her home in Oakland California. But it has taken on an almost cliché status in writing – even in conversations among journalists.

The quote (from Everybody’s Autobiography (1937)) does have the sequence of words there there, but that’s just two uses of locative there — the first functioning as a noun, the second as a locative adverb. (The other occurrence of there in the Stein quote is expletive, a.k.a. existential, there, which is in fact a pronoun, though the OED labels it an adverb. The occurrence of three uses of there in a five-word sentence makes the quote challenging to parse, and also playful in tone.)

On the original meaning of Stein’s sentence, see the discussion of “There is no there there” on this Gertrude Stein site:

[Q:] What is behind the oft quoted stein phrase “there is no there there”?

[A:] The quote “There is no there there” appears in Stein’s Book Everybody’s Autobiography. When Stein returned to California on her lecture tour to the United States in the 1930s, she wanted to visit her childhood home in Oakland, CA. She records that she could not find the house. Hence, “there is no there there.” –Sonja Streuber

But, as noted on another site, people quickly came to understand the quotation as asserting that there was no center, no substance, nothing of significance to the city of Oakland. And then the quotation was available for application to other places and other situations, including (in one contribution to this site) to Mitt Romney — from Timothy Egan’s “The Wrong Résumé” in the NYT on May 31st:

Romney has made business experience the main reason to elect him. Without his business past or his projections of business future, there is no there there.

Famous quotations often get used, out of their original contexts, to apply to new situations. If people do this often enough, they become, in effect, cliches. But in this case, I’m not sure that’s happened yet. I get only 53 hits from Google News for the quote, which is not a lot — and some of these are in fact directly about Stein and Oakland.

Maybe there’s some there there, maybe not.


3 Responses to “Ask AZ: there there”

  1. Greg Stump Says:

    Here, here, what’s all this now!?

  2. Amy Says:

    At the Berkeley-Oakland border, there is a piece of public art that consists of eight-foot-high metal letters, with HERE on the Berkeley side and THERE on the Oakland side. When it was installed a few years ago, some Oaklanders took offense at the Steinian dig.

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