Look Not To This Post

My friend Jack was remarking on our fish tank. It is remarkable in that it has no fish, but rather a half inch of water and an apparently autochthonous snail population. (This is the first time I’ve used this, my favourite word, correctly and not metaphorically.) He was looking for them on the landward end of the tank, and I said: “Look not to the land.” Everyone in the room (around eight people) spontaneously began to laugh.

Why?

I immediatelly assumed because it was as if I had quoted something. But looking over google, I can’t find any usage of the “look not to x” that I would have seen before. There are a few examples from the King James Version of the Bible, which suggests archaic usage (of which I am not surprised). I may have sucked it up from there. There’s one usage of it in Lord of the Rings, my standard goto for strange archaisms I’ve internalised. On google, there are some wonderfully hilarious examples: look not to the Karzai government, look not to the social stereotypes too often reinforced by social psychologists, look not to his high linguistic level of speaking, etc. ‘Look Not To The Mountains’ is a new short film about hunting in Africa in 1904… And, strangely, ‘look not into the abyss’ comes up, although there is merely a mind-shatteringly small 9 hits for that, which is a misquotation (or non-standard translation) of a quote attributed to Nietzche.

So I don’t know where it came from. But this is merely a case of modal dropping and negation moving: ‘We look not’ instead of  ’We do not look’. Why is that inherently humorous? Well, I’m guessing not because it was a strange grammatical usage, but rather because I used it referring to snails, and spoke as if the fish tank were an entire microcosm. The context was everything. If I had said this in class, I doubt a single person would have laughed, least of all the lecturer. And so, I’ll end with two questions: should we posit context as an influence on grammaticality judgements, since the response differs based on context? And, secondly, how in the hell would one draw a tree of this?

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