Lexicon Valley

Yogi Berra Turned Linguistic Vice Into Virtue With His Cockeyed Tautologies

All over again.

Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

With the passing of the great Yogi Berra come the inevitable tributes to his famously cockeyed gift for language. Everyone has been sharing their favorite Yogi-ism: “If you come to a fork in the road, take it.” “It’s déjà vu all over again.” “Ninety percent of the game is half mental.” “You can observe a lot by watching.” “The future ain’t what it used to be.”

The list goes on and on, though many of the sayings attributed to him actually came from elsewhere. Or, in Yogi-speak, “I really didn’t say everything I said.”

Berra is often reputed to have spoken in malapropisms—the accidental substitution of one word for another—but very few of his famous quotations actually fit that description. One of them came in 1973 when, as manager of the Mets, he sized up the opposing Reds in the playoffs and called Cincinnati’s Tony Pérez “a big clog in their machine.”

But if all Berra did was mix up words like cog and clog, his Yogi-isms would not be remembered nearly as fondly as they have been. Rather, the quotations that are most canonically Berra-esque involve something more subtle: a kind of absurdist play that questions our assumptions about the way language works, and about how language reflects the world.

Yogi-isms were often tautological on the surface, but not so self-evident when you stopped to think about them. Take his dictum “It ain’t over till it’s over,” purportedly delivered to a reporter in the summer of ’73 when the Mets seemed out of the pennant race. “Taken as propositional logic, this is informationless,” wrote Lane Greene in the Economist. But in Berra’s higher logic, it makes perfect sense: the “over-ness” of a baseball game or season cannot be calculated ahead of time. Assumed conclusions do not necessarily equate to actual ones.

In classical rhetoric, tautology was often seen as a failure. On Silva Rhetoricae (“The Forest of Rhetoric”), a website maintained by Gideon Burton of Brigham Young University, you will find tautologia listed among the stylistic vices. But Berra had a knack for turning such vices into virtues.

While tautology involves repeating the same thing in different words within a single statement, many Yogi-isms take the opposite approach: setting up a seemingly irresolvable conflict between linguistic elements. Rhetorically speaking, we’re dealing with paradox: “A statement that is self-contradictory on the surface, yet seems to evoke a truth nonetheless.”

Think of the great line, “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded” (In The Yogi Book, Berra recalled saying this in 1959 to Joe Garagiola and Stan Musial about a restaurant in his old St. Louis neighborhood). Or, in the same vein: “It was hard to have a conversation with anyone, there were so many people talking” (said to be about fancy state dinner). Both statements set up apparent oppositions but then reach for something more transcendent, by subverting the conventional meanings of words like nobody and anyone.

Even if Berra didn’t “say everything he said,” he managed to pull off these linguistic tricks with remarkable frequency, seemingly without even thinking twice about it. When asked to create a new Yogi-ism, he objected, “If I could just make ’em up on the spot, I’d be famous.” Of course, in his very objection, he did make one up on the spot, and he was justly famous for doing so.

We might wonder how Berra’s brain operated to produce so many beautifully off-kilter observations. But he is certainly not the only person in history to possess such a cockeyed outlook on the world, nor the only one with the ability to express himself in cockeyed language. The film producer Samuel Goldwyn was, in his day, just as famous for his Goldwyn-isms: “Gentlemen, include me out.” “I’m giving you a definite maybe.” “A verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.”

Or consider Berra’s longtime mentor Casey Stengel, who was prone to saying things like, “A lot of people my age are dead at the present time.” On his gravestone, it reads, “There comes a time in every man’s life and I’ve had plenty of them.” (Fred Shapiro, editor of the Yale Book of Quotations, surmises that Stengel’s “colorful and sometimes incomprehensible statements” must have had a lasting influence on Berra.)

Perhaps we all know someone who is capable of such peculiar commentary—someone who, as Roy Blount Jr. once said of Berra, “reacts more quickly and on two planes of possibility at once.” In the Beatles, that role was played not by the great songwriters John Lennon, Paul McCartney, or George Harrison, but their good-natured drummer, Ringo Starr. It was Ringo who, for instance, came up with the pleasingly paradoxical line, “It’s been a hard day’s night.”

And when Lennon needed a title for a rather portentous song based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, he punctured the profundity by using a Ringo-ism that had come out in an interview on the band’s return from their first visit to America in 1964: “Tomorrow never knows.” Yogi, like Ringo, might have been written off as a colorful goofball, but in that goofiness can lie sheer poetry.