What part of X don’t you understand?

From tv reruns:

What part of “stop the car” don’t you understand? (Bones)

What part of stay don’t you understand? (NCIS)

What part of “desk work” don’t you understand? (NCIS)

What part of “Level 5 sorceress” don’t you understand? (NCIS)

The first three are sarcastic, using the snowclone template “What part of X don’t you understand?” (where X is a linguistic expression), conveying that the meaning of X should be obvious to anyone, despite the fact that the addressee has apparently not understood it. The fourth uses the formula, but now with reference to an X whose meaning can’t be expected to be generally known, so that the question comes close to being a straightforward information question (though with a somewhat snarky tone attributable to the snowclone).

In a final development, the formula gets used for literal questions about some topic X, as in

What part of beer don’t you understand?

on the Real Beer site, which offers information about beers, brewing, and related topics. (Similarly on a BMW parts site.)

Some more examples, and some reflections on the model for the snowclone, “What part of No don’t you understand?”

Two notable instances of the formula used sarcastically:

What Part of “Yuck” Don’t You Understand? (link)

What part of MOOOOOAHAAHAHAHA [derisive laughter] Don’t you understand? (link)

A few more instances of X, illustrating the range of the expressions that can appear in the template:

“illegal”, sacred, “nothing”, unsubscribe, “Get Thee Gone”, FUCK OFF, blind, equality, princess, REPENT, prerequisite, majority, Thou Shalt Not Kill

Then there are plays on the formula: X = MEOW (from a cat), “Woof” (from a dog), Moooo (from a cow). And visual plays:

The model for all of this was discussed on ADS-L back on June (on the 24th and 25th). As John Baker reconstructed the history, it began in the late 1980s with comic signs (in political contexts), as in Clay Robison, “Legislators do right by elderly, poor, sick”, Houston Chronicle of 6/11/89:

AUSTIN – “What part of NO don’t you understand?’”

The sign, posted in several places on the walls of the House Appropriations Committee’s meeting room, elicited nervous grins from state bureaucrats and lobbyists who had survived the painful budget cuts of 1986 and 1987.

The budget writers sitting behind the big horseshoe-shaped table still uttered the dreaded, two-letter word a lot more than their audience cared to hear, but they also rediscovered the political pleasure of being able to say, “yes.”

Other finds, from Garson O’Toole: a piece by Virginia Briggs, “Over the back fence”, in the Placerville CA Mountain Democrat of 10/17/88, about a surprise party held in honor of Carl Borelli, a man who had been a City Councilman for 14 years:

To end the bash, Jim Mclntire told of his experiences with Carl, not the least of which was taking pizza to the Russian Consulate in San Francisco and of Carl’s determination when he wanted to get something done. “He wouldn’t take no for an answer,” which gave meaning to the T-shirt Jim presented Carl printed with “What part of No don’t you understand.”

And a quote from a 1989 book, The Landry Legend: Grace Under Pressure, by Bob St. John:

He even attended a council meeting with Irving [TX] Mayor Bob Pierce, who was armed with a poster which said, “What part of NO don’t you understand?” At first Jones seemed receptive to renaming the stadium after Landry, but later he said he didn’t believe in naming stadiums after people nor retiring jerseys of players because somebody else might come along who was better, …

And from Victor Steinbok, this quote from a 2/9/89 article, “Bond Issue for Water Passes, But…”, in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

”I’ve had quite a few people approach me and ask which part of ‘No’ I didn’t understand.” But he said he would approach the board tonight with a plan to …

Very early on, the catchphrase became associated with rape, as in the header on a 10/19/89 “Health Watch” piece (by Victor La Cerva, M.D.) in the Santa Fe Reporter:

What part of “NO” don’t you understand?

(found by Jon Lighter).

(The companion anti-date-rape catchphrase “No means no”– used earlier as an admonition by parents to children — is older than this, as Victor Steinbok noted.)

Then we get the 1992 song “What Part of No” (reported on ADS-L by Larry Horn), which no doubt was a vector for the spread of the catchphrase. From Wikipedia:

“What Part of No” is a song [by Wayne Perry and Gerald Smith] recorded by American country music artist Lorrie Morgan. Released as the second single from her 1992 album Watch Me, the single reached Number One on the U.S. Billboard Hot Country Singles & Tracks charts dated for the week of February 27, 1993, holding the Number One position for three weeks. To date, it is Morgan’s biggest hit.

… A woman in a social setting is approached repeatedly by a persistent man who sends her a rose, then buys her a drink and asks her to dance. The woman, uninterested in the man despite his advances, finally asks “What part of ‘no’ don’t you understand?”

Here’s the song:

Then came Dennis G. Korby’s 1994 book What Part of No Don’t You Understand?: Avoiding and Defending Against Rape (Koto Press), which might have served as another vector for the spread of the catchphrase.

And then people began playing variations on the phrase, leading to a snowclone. Eventually, we get a New Yorker cartoon (by Pat Byrnes), with an outrageous pun:

2 Responses to “What part of X don’t you understand?”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Larry Horn on ADS-L on July 4th:

    The New Yorker cartoon makes me think that there must be a T-shirt somewhere for epistemologists, featuring perhaps a portrait of Plato or Russell, over the legend “What part of KNOW don’t you understand?” Wait, let me check — aha:

    Not a T-shirt, perhaps, but a journal article — Brown, Deborah (2005). What part of “know” don’t you understand? The Monist 88:1.

    There are t-shirts. Also a nice photo of a teacher with a class, here.

  2. what part of no don’t you understand? | Lex maniac Says:

    […] voters, it bears an outraged, sarcastic, or at least exasperated edge. Linguist Arnold Zwicky has provided a very thorough exposition and history of the phrase and how it may be amended. The Phrase […]

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