Fast Enough.

Anatoly (of Avva) wrote me as follows:

Recently I was discussing a Trump tweet with a friend (hold on, my question is apolitical). The tweet went “He was dumb as a rock and I couldn’t get rid of him fast enough.”

During the discussion I realized that my friend (whose native language is Russian, like mine) misunderstands the meaning of this phrase (I think!). The way he understood “couldn’t get rid of him fast enough” was “failed to fire him as quickly as the situation required”, or in Russian “не смог достаточно быстро его уволить”. Whereas I was reading it as “was very impatient to fire him as quickly as possible”, that is “не мог дождаться, когда наконец смогу его уволить”.

Do you think my friend is right, or I am, or is it the case that these two meanings blend in your mind?

To me, they are very distinct and provide an example of what I occasionally see as a single English verb exhibiting distinct meanings that correspond to what Slavic languages embody as aspect, e.g. мог/смог. Do you experience them as such?

With that particular phrase, I feel the meanings are distinct because I can switch from one to the other mentally; that is, my friend’s interpretation, I feel, is not ungrammatical, but simply doesn’t fit the context (in a phrase like “I couldn’t press the trigger fast enough”, it’s just fine). Although come to think of it, I don’t know how to further explain “doesn’t fit the context”.

I responded that it was a very interesting question and that I thought the meanings blend for me, though the more I think about it the less sure I am — I’m starting to feel, like Anatoly, that I can switch from one to the other mentally. So I throw it open for responses by the Varied Reader.

Comments

  1. This was a really interesting question – I had to rewrite how I would differentiate the usages of the construction a few times (and I’m sure that there are some situation holes in what I’ve written). To me, the change in meaning of the construction comes from if the context is about the actual physical speed at which something was done or whether there was some perceived limitation in completing the task.

    1. (literal speed) not able to do as fast as required: “couldn’t shut it down fast enough” (the thing blew up because I wasn’t fast enough), “couldn’t finish it fast enough” (the report was late because I couldn’t write it fast enough)
    2. (perception of speed) impatient to get something done and something was preventing it from being done as fast as the speaker wanted: “couldn’t get out of there fast enough” (an annoying person kept talking to me and it felt like forever before I could politely leave), “couldn’t get rid of him fast enough” (an incompetent person worked for me and I struggled to find a reason to fire them)

    Compare “couldn’t get there fast enough”:
    * I’m rushing to the hospital to see my mom before she dies and I just couldn’t get there fast enough (not able to do as fast as necessary to see her before she died)
    * Were you able to get in line for the concert? Yeah, man, I couldn’t get there fast enough (impatient to get there, context being that something, ex. kids, traffic, spacetime, prevented the person from accomplishing getting in line as fast as they wanted to)

    For the specific example in the post, I don’t think I would have ever read it as being literal – if it were “fire”, then maybe, but “rid” to me seems like it’s always the “impatient” meaning since the verb implies that the person doing the getting rid of finds the person undesirable, where as “fire” is generally neutral/impersonal.

  2. I had a long comment in mind but I couldn’t post it fast enough and pc covered almost everything I was going to say.

    The only thing I would add here is that tone of voice would make a huge difference:
    “I couldn’t get rid of him fast enough”, falling tone = disappointment, which shades towards a “literal speed” interpretation.
    “I couldn’t get rid of him fast enough!”, rising tone = excitement, which shades towards “impatience”.

    Given that the original context was the president tweeting, I would strongly prefer the second Interpretation.

  3. Dmitry Pruss says:

    couldn’t do it as fast as I needed / as fast as I wanted to? Not a radical difference. Especially as spoken by a guy who takes his whims as if they were objective needs?

    A better question may be, how does “dumb as a rock” translate to Russian? Like a cork? Like a stump? Like a gander? Like a Siberian felt-boot?

  4. John Cowan says:

    A somewhat similar sentence is “If you lend me some money, I will be forever indebted to you” (morally, or financially?)

  5. Not sure how it’s similar, and I don’t think it’s ambiguous — the “forever” makes the financial interpretation highly implausible.

  6. It’s an interestingly subtle distinction, but I think it has to do with the implied reason:

    1 “I couldn’t get rid of him fast enough [to meet my firing quota].”
    2 “I couldn’t get rid of him fast enough [for my liking].”

    1 is a neutral statement, while 2 has the implied impatience of the Trump tweet – he really hated that guy and couldn’t wait to fire him.

  7. Casting my vote with koxn: they are definitely different meanings, and spoken intonation would distinguish them. The second meaning is hyperbolic, implying that any time greater than zero wouldn’t be fast enough, because I’m so eager.

    Looks like wordreference.com has discussed this expression several times, mostly queries from L2 speakers wondering what it means, one from someone trying to translate it into French.

  8. There’s a difference in implicature — Anatoly’s interpretation (which is the only one that would have naturally occurred to me) implies “I got rid of him”, while his friend’s doesn’t (maybe I stopped trying to get rid of him once it was too late). In context this also points to the first reading because the second implies possible failure, which we know is not something that has ever happened to the author of the tweet.

  9. I think they are distinct. At least for me the more idiomatic English meaning (that your friend misunderstood) implies that this guy was so dumb, that no matter how fast I got rid of him, it wouldn’t be fast enough. There’s a kind of blending of the conditional and the past tense meanings of “could”. So it’s not just that I was not able to get rid of him fast enough in some specific situation, it’s that it would be impossible, because “enough” would have to be faster than any possible speed — this guy is that bad.

  10. John Cowan says:

    the financial interpretation [is] highly implausible

    That depends on what you think of the would-be debtor, and how crafty he might be. But if you don’t like the parallelism, consider the alternative “… I will never be able to repay you enough”, which has the same enough as the original example.

  11. I think the difference is in the implicit comparator of “enough”. In the “impatient” reading (which is what Trump meant – “No matter how fast I got rid of him, I would have preferred to get rid of him faster”) it can be expanded to something like “enough to meet my ideal speed”. In the other reading (“not as quickly as the situation required”) it’s “enough to avoid harm”. The first case is a conventionalised joke that always has the same implicit comparator, in the second you have to figure it out from context.

    It’s reminiscent of Lauri Karttunen’s “didn’t wait to” puzzle:

    Question 1: How does it come about that X didn’t wait to do Y means either that X did Y right away or that X didn’t do Y at all?
    […]
    Question 2: Why is it not possible to translate expressions such as Neil didn’t wait to take off his coat to other languages in a way that preserves the ambiguity the sentence has in English?

    …except I think Karttunen’s ambiguity is semantic, not pragmatic.

  12. But that also makes no sense in financial terms, which involve the repayment of a fixed quantity of money (with or without a fixed amount of interest). Nobody would say “I will never be able to repay you enough” if speaking literally.

  13. I think pc and koxn clarified better than I could the two different meaning I sensed in that phrase.

    I should perhaps expand on what I meant in my letter to Hat about English verbs sort-of exhibiting aspect. The clearest example, for me, is what I think of as two distinct senses of “to know a person”, consider:

    1. We worked at the same company, but I barely knew him.
    2. When I first saw him after he lost all that weight, I barely knew him.

    In the first sentence, “barely knew” is something like “rarely interacted with him”. In the second sentence, “barely knew him” is “almost didn’t recognize him at that moment”. Again, I’d be interested in seeing how distinct these meanings are to native English speakers. To me they feel completely separate from each other, almost homonyms; and the most salient difference between them is what’s called aspect in Slavic languages; “knew-1” would be “imperfective”, while “knew-2” is “perfective”. In Russian, the two meanings are supplied by distinct though related verbs: знал vs узнал, one imperfective, the other perfective.

    (I have a pet theory about the phrase “X, we hardly knew ye”. Nowadays the phrase is usually used about someone who died or something that disappeared, but it comes from a song “Johnny we hardly knew ye” in which Johnny comes from the war horribly disfigured. My theory is that in popular perception, the meaning of “knew” in this phrase shifted from knew-2 to knew-1: in the folk song it meant that they barely recognized him when they saw him, while now it means something like “we’re commiserating by expressing sorrow, now that you’re gone, that we didn’t interact with you enough”. What do you think?)

    In the Trump tweet’s two interpretations, there’s “couldn’t” in the perfective sense of “failed to perform a particular task”, and there’s “couldn’t” in the imperfective sense of “was continuously in a state of being unable to do something”. As another example of this distinction with the same verb, I think I’d say that “I couldn’t find you yesterday” is perfective, while “I broke up with you because I couldn’t love you” is imperfective. Again, not sure if the distinction is meaningful to native speakers.

  14. For me, “I barely knew him” is the same phrase in both instances; I understand the semantic differentiation you’re making, but in English (it seems to me) it’s just a situational matter — there’s certainly no sense of sharp aspectual difference.

    I agree with your interpretation of “we hardly knew ye” and its history.

  15. Anatoly, your “knew-2” might be obsolescent. I would understand sentence 2, but I don’t think I would say it. I’d use “recognize” instead.

  16. Now that so many figures of speech are frowned upon it’s odd that dumb is still considered acceptable. Or perhaps it isn’t? Trump would certainly be the last to know.

  17. David Marjanović says:

    Or perhaps it isn’t?

    I’ve seen a few people insist that it isn’t, because the meaning “mute” (deaf and dumb) isn’t quite dead for everyone yet.

    German has solved that problem by applying the most dread s mobile: dumm “stupid”, stumm “mute”.

  18. David Marjanović says:

    Naturally, I interpret the two meanings of couldn’t without aspect: one as short for “I wasn’t able to fire him as quickly as I wanted” (indeed, I was taught in school that could could only be conditional, not past!), the other as short for “I couldn’t wait to fire him”, past of “I can’t wait to fire him”. We almost have the second in German, but we make “await” explicit (“I couldn’t await firing him”, with erwarten, where er- indicates successful completion).

    Similarly, the two meanings of know are distinguished in Standard German as kennen “know” vs. erkennen “recognize” – and as it happens, my dialect lacks er- in that word and ends up with homonyms.

  19. s-mobile, the phenomenon where a PIE root appears to begin with an *s- which is sometimes but not always present. It is therefore represented in the reflex of the root in some attested derivatives but not others.

    Thanks for that, DM!

    Maybe the reason no one’s offended by dumb is because the word that’s used nowadays is, as you say, mute.

  20. I feel that the “failed to” interpretation is ruled out for me by the coordination with “was dumb as a rock and…” which gives “couldn’t” an imperfective, “continuing” sense difficult to square with “failed to…fast enough for…”

    “He was dumb as a rock BUT I couldn’t fire him fast enough” would in contrast *require* for me the interpretation Anatoly’s friend gave it. Though it would feel a little unnatural without some explanatory continuation like “…to avoid that disaster”, etc. (This need would be avoided if sufficient context preceded it, of course: “Was there really any reason to think he had hidden reserves of talent that would emerge under pressure, at least at sink-or-swim moments like yesterday’s inspection?” “No, he was dumb as a rock, but I (just) couldn’t fire him fast enough…”)

    I think that many native speakers would opt for a circumlocution like “wasn’t able to” if they wanted to convey the “failed to” meaning without…um…fail, though I think that the “and” here makes that option unworkable in this case.

    To sum up, I agree that the two meanings are distinct, but not that they can both be argued for in any given context.

  21. John Cowan says:

    with or without a fixed amount of interest

    Not necessarily fixed, even if the annual rate is fixed (as it may well not be). Consider variable-rate variable-term mortgages

    stumm

    > the English adverb shtum ‘silently, usually in keep shtum. It’s probably been routed through Yiddish, though.

  22. AJP Crown:

    You’re right, that’s a mute point. (sorry)

  23. My mind did not immediately settle on either of the given interpretations as it is. But once I started thinking about it, my mind settled on Anatoly’s reading, and now I can’t read it any other way. Non-native speaker here, but if the first part of that sentence had read “he was being dumb as a rock…”, that would tip the scales towards the friend’s reading I think.

    The mind is a funny thing. As is aspect.

  24. I’m not sure I sense an aspect difference even in the “know” examples. Consider a present-tense version of the second one: “He’s lost so much weight, I hardly know him.” That seems to be just a normally imperfective English present, and “…I hardly knew him” feels to me like just a past-tense version of that.

    The Karttunen ambiguity seems to involve different meanings of wait to: “put off doing” vs. “hang around in order to do”.

    (Hi Anatoly! It’s been a while since the Forum2 days.)

  25. “I failed to fire him as quickly as the situation required” would be “I didn’t fire him fast enough”. I agree that “I couldn’t fire him fast enough” has a literal reading, but it seems to me that it obligatorily serves to focus the circumstance that prevented the firing and/or the deadline for firing. In other words, literal “couldn’t fire him fast enough” would be distinctly unidiomatic unless the point is “yeesh you wouldn’t believe how hard it was to fire this guy” or “then I realized the firing freeze started at midnight and it was 3 minutes till”.

    In any event, the literal sense doesn’t seem like something Trump would say, emphasizing his own inability to handle the situation.

  26. Not a Native English Speaker here, but without more context I wouldn’t interpret this instance of “fast enough” as a description of speed at all. It is a comment on the (alleged) stupidity of the person. Something like “he was so dumb that no matter how soon I got read of him, it wouldn’t be fast enough”. Something analogous to “could(n’t) care less”. I guess, it is a productive semantic construction in English. Frinstance, “this student knows so little, I cannot give him small enough grade”, “my car is so slow, it wouldn’t go any slower if it lost all its wheels”.

    A better question may be, how does “dumb as a rock” translate to Russian? Like a cork? Like a stump? Like a gander? Like a Siberian felt-boot?

    For me, “an oak” works best.

  27. For the original example, I think Breffni’s comment is spot-on: only Anatoly’s interpretation works, because the context doesn’t specify fast enough for what, which it would need to for the literal interpretation.

    I don’t experience the difference between the interpretations as aspectual; not knowing Russian, I can’t even guess which interpretation would correspond to a perfective verb and which to an imperfective one. It seems so arbitrary to me that I could readily believe that they map to Russian verbs in one way and to some other language’s perfective and imperfective verbs in the opposite way.

    (I’d compare it to a sentence that’s ambiguous in English because a pronoun “it” can corefer with either of two antecedents, but where the ambiguity is lost in Russian/Hebrew/French/German/etc. if the two antecedents happen to have different genders. The gender happens to disambiguate in the other language, but that’s just incidental, and doesn’t say anything about how the two interpretations of the English sentence differ.)

    @John Cowan:

    > A somewhat similar sentence is “If you lend me some money, I will be forever indebted to you” (morally, or financially?)

    Clever! It sounds like “If you lend me some money, I will be eternally grateful”, but since you point it out, yeah, it can equally mean, “If you lend me some money, I will never pay you back.” So sneaky; remind me never to lend you money!

  28. Eli Nelson says:

    To me, the distinction seems to hinge on the difference between “dynamic” and “deontic/epistemic” meanings of couldn’t. So my first reaction was to think of the sentence as being ambiguous rather than just vague (although there is probably some way of defining “couldn’t” that encompasses all of dynamic, deontic, and epistemic modality).

    If “couldn’t” means “happened to not have the ability to”, (dynamic interpretation) the friend’s interpretation applies. With a deontic or epistemic “couldn’t”, the sentence has a meaning like “It was logically impossible that I would get rid of him “fast enough”, because he was so dumb that any time at all that it took to get rid of him would be too much.” (As D.O’s mentioned.)

  29. “I couldn’t get rid of him fast enough” is an idiom, right? It means, he was doing so much damage so quickly that if I had him immediately escorted out of the building holding a cardboard box with his pictures of his kids, even that wouldn’t be fast enough. It’s like “I need this yesterday,” or “how about never,” or “my offer is nothing,” or “it’s not even wrong.”

  30. PS- “dumb as a rock” seems to be a new thing. There’s the old “dumb as a stump” which has the virtue of assonance, and there’s “dumber than a box of rocks,” which rhymes and has a bit of iambic tetrameter about it.
    But dumb as a rock has no benefits at all (rocks aren’t notably dumber than other inanimate objects) – yet it seems to be catching on.

  31. PPS- “fast enough” can be used in other contexts that make its meaning clearer:
    “I would have taken the job even if it didn’t come with a raise. But when he offered 10 percent plus commission, I couldn’t say yes fast enough.”

  32. Anatoly –
    “Johnny I hardly knew ye” is an anti-British pub song originating in early 19th C Ireland. The putative singer is a young woman who Johnny seduced with a promise of marriage, and then abandoned when he made her pregnant. To get away, Johnny joins the British Army and is sent to fight overseas (Ceylon, in some versions -the British fought wars of conquest there from 1803-1818).

    Anyway, the singer (sometimes with her child) comes across Johnny among a parade of wounded soldiers returning from the wars and ridicules him (or commiserates with him, depending on the version) for the wounds he’s suffered, telling him he’s unrecognizable:

    You haven’t an arm, you haven’t a leg,
    Hurroo Hurroo
    You haven’t an arm, you haven’t a leg,
    Hurroo Hurroo
    You haven’t an arm, you haven’t a leg
    You’re a spineless, boneless, chickenless egg
    You’ll have to be put with the bowl to beg
    Johnny, I hardly knew ye.

    The point is, young men, don’t be fooled by British recruiting sergeants who promise money and adventure – you’ll come home in such a state that the girls won’t even recognize you.

  33. I have always been partial to saying “dumber than a sack of hammers,” although I have no idea why a sack of hammers, as opposed to any other inanimate object(s), should be particular stupid.

  34. >>A somewhat similar sentence is “If you lend me some money, I will be forever indebted to you” (morally, or financially?)

    And the old Monty Python nugget – “If I told you that you have a beautiful body, would you hold it against me?”

  35. “Why dad is stupid as a rock” – “He’s stoned”.

  36. David Marjanović says:

    Are all these comparisons nominal? A verbal one is preferred in Vienna: z’deppert zum Scheißen – “too dumb to [be able to] shit”.

  37. Christian Weisgerber says:

    @David Marjanović

    German has solved that problem by applying the most dread s mobile: dumm “stupid”, stumm “mute”.

    Wait, hadn’t the conditions for s mobile ceased to exist by the time of Proto-West-Germanic? Anyway, both Pfeifer and Kluge think that these are different stems and stumm is related to stammeln, English stammer; and this group is probably related to stemmen, ON stemma > English stem ‘to stop, hinder’.

  38. Trond Engen says:

    … and it would make ON dumbr and the other Germanic cognates borrowings from OHG. Instead, says Bjorvand & LIndeman, it seems that HG dumm belongs to a small gtoup of HG words of WMG origin. OHG had the pair dump, tump.

    But stum/stemme ~ dum/demme makes for a nice false positive in s-mobile diagnostics.

  39. Trond Engen says:

    Also, B&L says that dummr has no known etymology. But it could conceivably relate to damm n. and demme v. the same way as German stummrelates to stamm and stemmen.

    No. stum is from LG.

  40. @e-k: That was Groucho Marx, no?

  41. David Marjanović says:

    Wait, hadn’t the conditions for s mobile ceased to exist by the time of Proto-West-Germanic?

    Sorry, I was half-joking. Sure, s mobile can happen a lot more easily if a lot of words end in /s/ or /z/, and that was no longer the case by the time of PWGmc; and even independently of that Pfeifer and Kluge are most likely right anyway.

  42. The biggest issue here (not to be political) is that Trump is a few bricks shy of a load when it comes to language usage.

    His Twitter feed is filled with phrases used in incorrect, unusual, misspelled, and bizarre ways (with extra quotation marks and unusual capitalization). This often seems intentional to give plausible deniability if someone were to call him out, but it may also be an artifact of some imperfect speech to text program he uses (to overcome a learning disability, perhaps).

    We can talk about how these phrases are commonly used, but it would be impossible to say for certain what Trump meant.

  43. “as dumb as a bag of hair” is an expression I learned years ago from a friend. I think the idea of a bag of hair being essentially weightless makes it apt.

  44. David Marjanović says:

    Oh no, the capitalization is Intentional, for Emphasis, or sometimes for Perceived Proper Names. It’s “similar” for the “quotation marks”!

  45. David Marjanović says:

    In reading I’ve often encountered dumm wie Bohnenstroh. I’m not sure what bean straw is even supposed to be, though.

  46. Stu Clayton says:

    See the German WiPe article. That’s where I learned it. I find now that “bean straw” is a Thing in its own right !

  47. David Marjanović says:

    Ah. It’s quite literal. Back when people slept on straw sacks, very poor people couldn’t afford cereal straw and had to resort to bean straw, which is harder. “Coarse as bean straw” became “dumb as bean straw”.

  48. Stu Clayton says:

    So it’s not surprising that Jack had beans in the house. He slept on bean straw that turned into an adventure in his dreams.

  49. Goodness, there’s a word haulm in English. Like halm (straw), in Norwegian. The English verb to haulm means to lay straw straight for thatching a roof and the noun is a farmer’s word for various stalk collections, from beans to potatoes to grass (straw). Interestingly the Indonesian word for straw is Jerami.*

    *interesting for those of us whose first name is Jeremy

  50. The A is for Jeremy?

  51. David Marjanović says:

    He slept on bean straw that turned into an adventure in his dreams.

    Quite possible.

  52. Trond Engen says:

    A Jeremy Pseudonym.

  53. Savalonôs is soapy?

  54. See this and the following comment.

  55. When did Crown say his first name was Jeremy? He just said there was a subset of people who are named Jeremy, not that he was one of them.

  56. A Subset Named Jeremy. That was my favorite book when I was a kid.

  57. Stu Clayton says:

    When you can’t immediately remember Savalonôs, think heavily annotated copy of Hull Breach.

  58. David Eddyshaw says:

    A Subset Named Jeremy. That was my favorite book when I was a kid.

    I preferred Graham the Graph.

  59. Stu Clayton says:

    I still have my children’s book on the writer Greene’s involvement in code-breaking and espionage, published in America as The Exciting Life of Graham Cracker.

  60. All the other sets make fun of Jeremy because he’s only a subset. In the end, through his own pluckiness and the action of a kind adult-like figure, they learn to accept him as one of their own.

    (Jeremy is a proper subset, the others are trivial subsets. However, I do not aim to suborn math jokes here.)

  61. John Cowan says:

    Well, either his name is Jeremy or that’s another pseudonym, only Facebook knows which.

  62. There are other English expressions in this model. E.g., “I can’t get enough of your love”, “I can’t emphasise enough how important this is”. The point is the urgency or intensity of the desire for the situation in question.

  63. Definitely with you, Steve. Now I’m wondering if your friend’s sentence would work if get were exchanged for be — that would address the distinction you said was important and, I think, address it well — but the sentence is so idiomatically burdened, it would still sound a little off. Or, um . . . maybe not?

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