I came across the idiomatic usage, ‘not above doing’ in the following sentence of Jeffery Archer’s fiction, “Kane & Abel.” Allan Lloyd, a banker and Chairman of William Kane’s trust tells William’s mother Anne:

“Although he (William Kane, the heir of deceased bank chairman) has no authority over the trust until he is twenty one, we discovered through sources of our own that he is not above going to an independent lawyer to find out his legal position.”

No dictionary at hand shows ‘not above ...ing’ as an idiom. But according to wordreference com., it means (Someone) will do anything and won't be ashamed to do it. So I understood that the speaker meant William went so far as to consult the lawyer to his trustee’s surprise.

I’m intrigued to find why it is in negative form. i.e. why ‘not’ is necessary in “be not above doing something,” because the subject here, 16-year old William Kane is doing something more than expected. I hope my point of question is clear to you.

  • From The Restaurant at the End of the Universe: "It has been said that Vogons are not above a little bribery and corruption in the same way that the sea is not above the clouds, and this was certainly true in his case." (The joke here is that "not above", in the moral sense, has a certain minimalist quality - you'll do whatever it is, and not be ashamed, but you're not necessarily enthusiastic. The sea, however, is not only "not above" the clouds, but... hence the humor.) – MT_Head Jan 27 '13 at 6:17

We are above something if were are too moral to do it:

He was above denying his colleagues' share in the credit.

If we are too wealthy to deem to do it:

He was above worrying about where his next meal will come from.

Or if it will make us look bad, or we are of too high a social standing:

I am above getting into petty scraps in public.

In contrast therefore, we are not above something if we are not too moral to do it:

Jeffrey Archer is not above sleeping with prostitutes, bribing them, and then perjuring himself in false libel actions.

If we don't care about something making us look bad:

Jeffrey Archer is not above claiming to be the youngest ever MP even though someone seven years younger was already sitting in the very same parliament.

Or if we have the money to avoid doing something odious:

Jeffrey Archer is not above writing trashy novels that treat the English language worse than he does prostitutes, journalists, and the truth.

Generally, when we are above doing something, it means that we don't do it because we are "better" than the sort of person who would, for some value of "better" (wealth, morality, wisdom, privilege, social standing, esteem, self-esteem). When we are not above doing something, it means that we do do it, because we are "worse" than the the sort of person who wouldn't, likewise by various different criteria.

In most cases, to say someone is above something means that they didn't do it, and we approve their not doing it, while to say that they aren't above it means that they did it and we disapprove. So, in my examples about Jeffrey Archer, I'm saying that I disapprove of his behaviour in each case. (Since you'd mentioned him, and I needed examples of odious behaviour, they came quickly to mind).

Pause before I move onto the exception. Don't read the next bit until you're happy you understand the previous...

Okay, the exception is when the "better/worse" relates to privilege. Here we if we say that a rich man "isn't above working with his hands" or a boss "isn't above helping out on the floor when it's busy" we mean that they aren't using their privilege to shirk such work, and we probably approve of that.

We might also use this "above" idiom in a sarcastic way, so saying "oh, he's above talking to the likes of us" could mean "he thinks he's better than us, but really he isn't". But this is a sarcastic use of irony, so it's a deliberate inversion of the normal meaning.

In the example given, the speaker doesn't approve of the fact that William Kane talked to the lawyer whether because he thinks it sneaky, thinks it bad form that he is engaging a lawyer outside of the family firm, thinks it bad form to enquire so closely after finances (an attitude among very "old money") or some other reason (or no sane reason whatsoever and it was just badly written).

  • Accepting your answer, I’m not still 100% clear with the exact nuance of “be not above doing” though I got a rough idea of it. William actually consulted with the lawyer on his legal position. In the same token with my question to @MετάEd, does “Jeffrey Archer is not above sleeping with prostitutes, bribing them ...” mean that “Archer wasn’t ‘ashamed of’ venturing to sleep with prostitution, (actually he did)” What is the alternative expression to “be not above doing” in short words? – Yoichi Oishi Jan 28 '13 at 22:12
  • Added a bit. Let me know if it helps at all, or if you've still got questions. – Jon Hanna Jan 28 '13 at 22:55

In English, we say that we are above something, or something is beneath us, when it is something we want distance ourselves from, metaphorically speaking.

The metaphor of relative height is an ancient one, not limited to the English language. Higher things are better than lower things. In some cultures, to show the bottom of your shoe to someone is a grave insult. It puts you beneath them.

So I might say I am above thieving, meaning that I am better than a thief.

In another circumstance, I might say I am not above thieving, meaning that I am willing to be a thief.

  • So the text means that William wasn’t ‘ashamed of’ venturing to consult with an independent lawyer about his legal position? – Yoichi Oishi Jan 27 '13 at 23:36

above: too honorable to yield or succumb

It's helpful to understand a meaning of the word

beneath: lower than, as in rank or station, unworthy of, unbefitting


So, in your example

"...he is not above going to an independent lawyer to find out his legal position."

Therefore, the sense of the statement is that he is not so honorable that he would not employ an independent lawyer.

(This may be somewhat sarcastic, because today, it is often considered wise to obtain an independent opinion, especially where money and health are involved.)


According to this source,

he is not above going to an independent lawyer to find out his legal position

simply means that

he doesn't mind seeing a lawyer to find out his legal position
he doesn't think he should not consult a lawyer to find out his legal position.

  • Your link is broken – Canis Lupus Jan 27 '13 at 5:47
  • @Jim. Reset the link. It's working now. – user32480 Jan 27 '13 at 5:48

If you had it as 'being above doing something', then it would sound like the something is too small for you to worry about. Putting the negative 'not' in here makes it read as the something isn't a trouble, problem for the purpose, in the phrase you've quoted from the book.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.