Example: “Say what you will about Stalin, the guy grew a helluva mustache.”
See how well that works? The speaker has compartmentalized his praise. So what if Stalin was a really bad dude. This is about mustaches, not morality!
The idea behind the “say what you will” phrase is it suggests — but doesn’t specify — something bad about the subject before going on to something different and better. Which is why I got confused last week when I heard a caller on a talk-radio station begin a sentence with “Say what you want about Anne Frank …”
I didn’t even hear the rest. My brain was too tangled with questions. Like, What’s wrong with Anne Frank? How did she earn a “say what you want”? Is there a dark side to her story that I don’t know about?
On reflection, I think the caller just bungled her “say what you want” preface. She must have meant that people say a lot about Anne but they don’t say enough about her writing, or optimism, or whatever it was I tuned out.
Or maybe the caller tried to reverse the “say what you want” convention, starting with the acknowledgement that Anne was a good kid and ending with a critical “but” as in “… but she knew nothing about taxidermy!”
Nice try, caller, but it doesn’t work that way. Starting a sentence with “say what you want about the miracle of childbirth …” and finishing with “… it sure is messy” doesn’t cut it. Our brains are programmed to hear “say what you will/want” and think, Ooh, there’s something bad about this person.
Orin Hargraves agrees with me. The author of It’s Been Said Before: A Guide to the Use and Abuse of Cliches (2014) writes that “say what you will” “is mainly used to concede that there are grounds for criticism of someone or something before going on to praise them.”
Here are some examples from the Internet:
“Say what you will about the greedy capitalist record chiefs of the 1970s, they sure knew how to throw a party.”
“Say what you will about (Mel Gibson) – about his problem with booze or his problem with Jews – he is a serious filmmaker.”
“Say what you will about British cheese, there’s not a cheese that’s been more copied, emulated, and changed than good old English cheddar.”
My all-time favorite use of this phrase, or cliché, comes courtesy of John Goodman’s Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski (1998). Distressed to learn that a bunch of thugs are actually German nihilists (who reject all religious and moral principles), he expresses a slight preference for Nazism. “Say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude,” he tells the Jeff Bridges character. “At least it’s an ethos.”
As a fictional character in a quirky comedy, Sobchak could get away with a comment that might incinerate a real person. Ask Bill Maher. Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, the host of Politically Incorrect got pilloried for defending the courage of the terrorists. Said Maher, “Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it’s not cowardly.”
Apparently, “say what you will/want” can’t make every statement palatable. Too bad. We still have to think before we speak.
Say what you will, that’s probably a good thing.