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When someone says "X, not to say Y", do they mean "X, but not Y" or do they mean "X, and even Y"?

Normally I would assume it's the first, but I've seen a few examples where it seems ambiguous. Or maybe it's literally the first, but used ironically to mean the second?

An example (for some reason writers for The Atlantic seem to use this phrase a lot):

In somewhat different ways, Orwell and Larkin were phlegmatically pessimistic and at times almost misanthropic, not to say misogynistic.

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excellent question – Michael Easter Apr 22 '11 at 3:27
up vote 4 down vote accepted

You are right: literally not to say means not quite Y, but it is mostly used to mean even Y.

[Edited:] In this case, either the author uses this phrase in an unusual way, or he considers misogynistic an even stronger qualification than misanthropic. Perhaps his line of though was thus: they disliked people in general, and, what is even more salient, they specifically disliked women. I will assume the latter, since they use not to say in a conventional manner in your other example as well, dismissive, not to say derisive. Dismissing something is not as strong as ridiculing it.

It literally means they were misanthropic, and one might almost go so far as to say that they were misogynistic (but one doesn't). The latter is supposed to be an even stronger word than the former; the writer says he will not fully commit himself to "misogynistic" but offers it as a suggestion.

In practice, this figure of speech is mostly used when the writer is quite committed; it then simply introduces a phrase that is even stronger than what came before, without any serious holding back. Not to say is often more or less equivalent to even:

In somewhat different ways, Orwell and Larkin were phlegmatically pessimistic and at times almost misanthropic, even misogynistic.

If he did not intend it to be read this way, which I think he did, that means he would have used it in an unusual manner that might be misleading for some readers.

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Close, but I think you've got it backwards. With not to say, X is qualifying Y. I'd argue that misanthropy (contempt for mankind) is stronger than misogyny (contempt for women). The author is using the stronger word first, which introduces a bolder concept, followed by a lesser word whose meaning is probably already understood by the reader. In essence, Y is being dismissed in favor of introducing X: They hated all mankind (X), not to say what they thought about women (Y). – HaL Apr 22 '11 at 2:20
@HaL: I see your point. That's why I said "is supposed to be an even stronger word": it is not obvious that misogynistic should be stronger than misanthropic, as you say—on the contrary. However, this phrase is normally used to indicate a climax, not a watering-down. That's why I was forced to interpret misogynistic as the stronger term: see my edit above how I read it. Do you at least agree that it would be unusual and odd if the writer used it to introduce a weaker term? Or do you think I am mistaken in that regard? – Cerberus Apr 22 '11 at 3:13
Do either of you agree with me that this is more commonly "not to mention' ? That is how I have always heard it... – Karl Apr 22 '11 at 8:22
@Cerberus After consulting some physical dictionaries, I think your original answer may be right. Most references I found suggest that not to say can be used in place of even, and vice versa. It was always my interpretation that X was qualifying Y, as in my first comment, but now I feel you have changed my mind. Thanks for the edification. – HaL Apr 22 '11 at 16:38
@HaL: Wow thanks! Kind words. – Cerberus Apr 23 '11 at 15:15

I am more familiar with this as "not to mention", though the sense is, I think, the same:

"X, not to say/mention Y" is often used to strengthen the first claim/concept. Example:

Sarah is awful at her job! She never arrives on time, not to say/mention how little effort she makes when she is here.

The fact that 'she never arrives on time' gives good reason for my claim that 'Sarah is awful for her job', even without adding that she makes no effort. By using the 'not to say' clause, we are giving further reason to accept the original claim.

As a point of interest, another similar phrase exists with quite a different meaning:

If I say "X. That is not to say Y", it means that even though my saying X might imply Y, that is not the case.

An example should help:

Sarah is terrible at her job. That is not to say that I think she should be fired; perhaps further training would be a good idea, though.

Here, my first statement (X) might lead you to think that I would advocate Sarah being fired. I want to clarify that I do not feel that way, so I use the 'not to say Y' statement to ensure that the listener doesn't get the wrong idea.

Hope that helps.

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Agreed: if you put "not to say" in a new sentence, it will be taken literally, as "I really don't mean x" instead of semi-ironic "even". – Cerberus Apr 23 '11 at 15:18
Good point...I hadn't thought of the similarity to "not to mention". – JW01 Apr 25 '11 at 18:18
  • My dictionary says that "Not to say..." is "used to introduce a stronger alternative or addition to something already said."

It is easy to become sensitive, not to say paranoid.
He was large, not to say fat.

  • The OALD gives only one choice: "Used to introduce a stronger way of describing something"

A difficult, not to say impossible, task

So, in this case:

In somewhat different ways, Orwell and Larkin were phlegmatically pessimistic and at times almost misanthropic, not to say misogynistic.

I think that the matter is not which one between misanthropic and misogynistic is stronger (in general), but which one Orwell and Larkin were, more exactly, between those two. This is also what I get from the comment written by @Hal.

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