‘That is a hell of a pinpoint operation, a hell of a pinpoint operation,” Secretary of State John Kerry said to Fox News interviewer Chris Wallace on Sunday, July 20, in reference to the Israeli military operation in Gaza. The channel’s viewers did not get to hear this remark, because Kerry made it after he thought the microphones had been turned off. Only afterward was it reported in the newspapers.
Americans who read it there had little trouble understanding that Kerry was expressing his exasperation at having been — or so he thought — misled by an Israeli promise to limit its ground action in Gaza to a surgical strike. (Exactly how Kerry, who saw a considerable amount of combat in Vietnam, imagined that dozens of Hamas tunnels leading into Israel could be discovered and removed with military pincers is a subject I’ll leave to others.) Israelis were less certain. Was Kerry, as many commentators thought, being sarcastic? Was he expressing amazement? Was he, as at least one Israeli TV newscaster believed, commenting on the hellish nature of the fighting? What exactly does the English idiom “a hell of a” mean?
Of course, many Israelis would do well to brush up on their English. But before you conclude that English was their sole problem, let me ask you just what the expression “a hell of a” means. A little reflection will convince you that it’s not as simple as you may have thought. Suppose, for example, I say of someone, “He’s a hell of a guy.” Clearly, I am saying that the person in question is an unusually nice or colorful one who should be liked or admired. Yet suppose I say of something, “This is a hell of a situation.” Now I am saying that the situation in question is unusually complicated or distressing and should be gotten away from. We are dealing, it would seem, with a rather slippery expression.
“Well,” you may suggest, “the rule then might be that ‘a hell of’ is positive when applied to a person and negative when applied to a situation.” It might be — but it isn’t. You can say, “I had a hell of a good time last night,” but you would never say, if you were a native English speaker, “I had a hell of a bad time.” And conversely, if you say of a person, “He’s a hell of a nuisance,” you’re hardly being positive. Moreover, “a hell of a” can often be perfectly ambiguous. If, for instance, I say, “That was a hell of a party Alice gave,” what exactly am I saying about Alice’s party? Possibly that it was an unusual success, possibly that it was an unusual disaster and possibly that it was just plain unusual without specifying in what way it was.
Do we know which of its different possible meanings “a hell of a” has in such a sentence by the tone of voice in which it is said? Perhaps sometimes, but certainly not always. Although I can say, “That was a hell of a party Alice gave” in a tone that leaves no room for doubt that the party was awful, I can also, while intending to convey that it was awful, say it in the identical tone I would use if the party had been wonderful. Not only that, but you would understand me perfectly.
How? By the context. You may have been at the same party and know what I’m talking about. Or I may already have started telling you how awful it was. Or you may have asked me, “How was last night?” and I may have groaned before answering, “That was a hell of a party Alice gave.” This is how we understand a great deal of the conversations we take part in. The words by themselves, or even the tone they are said in, may not tell us all we need to know, but our knowledge of other things — who the speaker is, the subject he or she is discussing, his or her relationship to it — makes up for this.
The same is true of Kerry’s remark. If one saw it by itself on a printed page without any awareness of the context it was made in, one would indeed have no way of knowing if it was made in praise of Israel or in criticism of it. It’s only when one also has some familiarity with Kerry’s politics, his frustration with Israel because of the failed peace negotiations with the Palestinians that he presided over, and his unhappiness with the growing escalation of the fighting in Gaza, that one can understand that he was saying: “Those Israelis have done it again — they promised us a pinpoint operation and look what they’ve given us!” If Americans had less doubt about this than Israelis had, this isn’t just because they know English better; it’s also because they have a better knowledge of their own secretary of state.
Questions for Philologos can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org