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Technically a small piece of paper is worthless - having zero resale value, so why is the saying not: It is worth the paper it's printed on?

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One expression is that "a verbal contract isn't worth the paper it's written on." (attributed to Samuel Goldwyn), i.e. nothing at all. –  PaulRein Mar 10 '11 at 17:25
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There are many ways in which a piece of paper is not worthless. It depends on time, place, method of calculation, and your definition of "worth". There have been many times when I was very happy I had a scrap of paper. I might have paid a few euros for it. –  Cerberus Mar 10 '11 at 17:31
    
Right, you might need it for anything... –  Cerberus Mar 10 '11 at 18:23
    
Wait, you're Dutch too? –  Cerberus Mar 10 '11 at 19:06
    
concept420.com/images/how_to_roll_a_blunt.jpg Ja, mon –  user5531 Mar 10 '11 at 21:24
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3 Answers

up vote 15 down vote accepted

“Not” in comparative forms typically means “less than”. For instance,

I’m not as tall as Michael Jordan.

means “I am less tall than MJ”, rather than “I am not exactly the same height as MJ”.

So in this case, “it’s not worth the paper it’s printed on” (and parallel constructions like “it’s not worth waiting ten minutes for”), not means it’s worth even less than the paper is — and that’s already a negligible amount. So it means something is worth a really really negligible amount — or even, as @Martha suggests, worth less than nothing.

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This is what I was trying to say, but you said it much better. –  Marthaª Mar 10 '11 at 17:37
    
Surely it's the words 'worth' and 'as' that are comparative rather than 'not'? –  UpTheCreek Mar 10 '11 at 18:36
    
Compare with "I don't have as much height as Michael Jordan" and "it doesn't have as much worth as the paper it's written on" –  Gareth Mar 11 '11 at 14:05
    
"Not", in comparative forms, can also be understood to be "more than", as in I'm not as short as my wife. The adjectives 'tall' and 'short' describe height, so we understand that 'not as short as' means 'more height'. Of course you are right that the literal implication is 'less than', i.e. 'short' is a negative measurement from 'average height', so 'not as short as' means 'less negative magnitude from the average height'. (Not only was that was hard to read, it was hard to write--if two negatives make a positive, then three negatives must be HUGE!) –  oosterwal Mar 11 '11 at 14:08
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This usage of "not" includes an implied "even": it's not even worth as much as the paper it's printed on, i.e. it's worth less than nothing.

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+1, as I understand it, the saying is "not even worth the paper it's written on". It's "I could care less" that get's me, in UK we say "I couldn't care less". –  Lee Kowalkowski Mar 10 '11 at 23:26
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@LeeKowalkowski, Americans who speak correctly also say "I couldn't care less". :) –  Marthaª Mar 10 '11 at 23:29
    
I could care less, but I am so disinterested in your petty, little problem that I refuse to try. –  oosterwal Mar 10 '11 at 23:52
    
@Martha: agreed; I’m a pretty hardline descriptivist, read my Language Log every morning, and all that, and know how objectively it’s simply an opaque and correct idiom now in many dialects — but I still can’t stop myself wincing each time I hear “I could care less”… –  PLL Mar 11 '11 at 0:23
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@oosterwal: No one says that it's syntactically incorrect, only that its literal meaning is the opposite of (or unrelated to) what the speaker intends. There is no way that "I could care less" can literally mean "I don't care"; it's at most idiomatic. (The literal meaning of "I could care less but I won't" is "I care, and I'm going to keep on caring". To convey the meaning of "I don't care", one would have to say "I could care more [but I won't]".) –  ShreevatsaR Mar 11 '11 at 13:47
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Because you're trying to say precisely the opposite. It is so worthless that its worth is not even superior to that of the paper on which it is printed. It's a little misleading to compare value, because even though you're quantifying the worth of something to something else, you're implying that the worth is at least that much (even if it is not actually said). An example of this would be "Even though that sweater cost me 100 dollars, it was worth it." Even though you're saying it's worth 100 dollars, you're implying that it is at least worth 100 dollars.

So the opposite of saying that it is worth the paper it is printed on is saying that the worth does not even exceed that of the paper it is printed on.

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