No offense (intended)

From the American tv series Emergency! S7 E11 “The Convention” (from 7/3/79), a tv movie following the regular series. Two women end up serving as a paramedic team together — female paramedics were a new thing at the time, only grudgingly accepted, and they were normally paired with a male partner — so a male paramedic tells them the watch commander wouldn’t approve of the women teaming up. One of the women good-naturedly but pointedly snaps back at him:

(1a) How would you like a thick lip, to go with your thick head? No offense.

With the idiomatic tag No offense — a shorter version of No offense intended — literally meaning something like ‘I intend/mean you no offense by saying this’, but almost always conveying something more complex than that.

The tag is very often introductory, and followed by but, rather than appended:

(1b) No offense, but how would you like a thick lip, to go with your thick head?

Quite commonly the speaker does in fact intend to offend, criticize, or insult the addressee, but piously disavows these intentions so as to deflect negative reactions by the addressee. What’s going on in (1a) is, however, a bit more indirect than that.

The show. On the (complex) episode of Emergency!, from the IMDb plot summary:

San Francisco firefighters and paramedics rescue a man trapped on the rigging of a schooner. A paramedic convention brings [Los Angeles paramedics] [John] Gage [Randolph Mantooth] and [Roy] DeSoto [Kevin Tighe] back to San Francisco, where they assist a choking victim in a restaurant, then deliver a baby while two female paramedics [Gail (Patty McCormack) and Laurie (Deirdre Lenihan)] treat a sniper’s shooting victims. [more action follows]

It’s a nice touch that John and Roy deliver the baby, while Gail and Laurie treat the shooting victims.

The idiom. Then from the Merriam-Webster on-line dictionary site:

no offense idiom — used before a statement to indicate that one does not want to cause a person or group to feel hurt, angry, or upset by what is about to be said // No offense, but I think you are mistaken. // “No offense, but you’re nutty as a fruitcake.”— Carl Hiaasen

The first example is a simple softening of unwelcome news, but the Hiaasen is a deliberately offensive no offense, with the tag serving as mere deflection. Merely deflective no offense is so common in actual practice that some take it to be the norm, as in this meme:


And on the net, merely deflective no offense is so common that it has an initialistic abbreviation:


But earnestly softening no offense (as in Merriam-Webster’s first example) isn’t rare, as in this touching example from FOUND magazine:  “No Offense Intended”,  found by Sam in San Francisco:

Just saw this note on the ground after leaving a coffee shop at 18th Ave. and Geary Blvd., and thought it was a pretty fair and balanced proposition for a casual “dudes only” hookup.


[Digression on if you’re down (for a hookup). From NOAD:
adj. down: … 4 [predicative] US informal supporting or going along with someone or something: you got to be down with me | she was totally down for a selfie | “You going to the movies?” “Yo, I’m down.”.]

The note-writer did his best on the task of attempting to negotiate a sexual connection while not knowing how his offer would be taken — while recognizing that many straight guys are enraged on learning that some other men might find them sexually desirable. (Presumably because being an object of other men’s sexual desire is being “treated like a woman”, and that’s a deep threat to their masculinity.)

But back to (1a), which is neither earnestly softening nor merely deflective, but something in between. The female paramedic who uttered (1a) was in fact wielding no offense to bring her male colleague into line, by telling him the hard truth that he was behaving badly, but doing this with enough empathy for him as a colleague that he should be able to see that her words weren’t a matter of personal animus against him, and doing this with some humor (the mock-threatened thick lip). She was teaching him a lesson. In the actual story, it seems to have had the appropriately sympathetic but chastening effect. A very nice example of female assertiveness, cleverly and humanely deployed.

(I should note that this episode comes very close to the end of the show, which for years was extraordinarily male-oriented, with only the head nurse Dixie McCall (played by Julie London) playing a major role, as the highly empathetic tough broad at Rampart General Hospital — though she was a truly wonderful character. Now, it’s not fair to criticize this show in particular for its heavy male orientation, since that was pretty much the style of the time, and the show was actually quite good at depicting male friendship, male competition, the sexual marketplace, and symbolic displays of masculinity, all with some subtlety and good humor. But until the late episodes, the character Dixie McCall pretty much had to carry the weight for more than half of humanity.)

Deflections. No offense (intended) is frequently deployed as a deflection, and it’s just one in a whole armamentarium of deflections, among them: I don’t mean to critcize/complain, but … ; Not to criticize/carp, but …; and so on — all going on to express criticism, complaint, and accusation, while at the same time refusing to accept responsibility for these judgments and so trying to avert the weight of their targets’ pain and outrage. The strategy is sometimes referred to as “politeness”, but it’s rarely experienced as such.





One Response to “No offense (intended)”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    On Facebook, Heidi Harley notes that there’s a relationship between no offense and the non-apology apologies examined by Edwin Battistella. From his Wikipedia bio:

    A fifth book, his 2014 Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apology, analyzes the public apologies of politicians, entertainers, businessmen, and others, with the goal of showing how certain language creates sincere or insincere apologies. The work connects actual apologies with the broader social, ethical, and linguistic principles behind them.

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