How Nope Became the Internet's Favorite Way to Say No
Nope? Nope. NOPE. Nope nope nope. Nope...nope! (Nope.)
Gazing into the teeming mire of the linguistic present, one discovers a frighteningly high number of abnormalities awaiting academically christened, peer-reviewed explanation.
One specimen, currently in an indeterminate stage of meme-life, is that slangy, strange, nebulous negative, “nope.”
Nope, spoken, is commonly in answer to a question. It is a slangy answer; nope makes a claim to audience. To a friend, it denotes a certain passive familiarity. To a child, being corrective. (“Nope, don’t touch.”) To an authority figure, one uses “nope” to attempt rebelliousness.
Or deliberate stupidity. Buried within nope is a lie; even, an inherent joke.
“Did you burn the barn down?”
No one who answers “nope” to that question is telling the whole truth.
“‘Nope?’” the interlocutor demands. “What do you mean, ‘Nope?’”
“Nope, I didn’t burn the barn down,” but I know who did.
Or so goes the natural line of reasoning. Indeed, it is nope’s inherent joke, its facetious character, that connects the spoken meaning of “nope” to its digital incarnation: “Nope” as one of the ways the internet expresses fear and loathing.
“Did you see that?”
In a “nope” discussion on Reddit, one user defined nope as “a contraction of no, period.”
This is “nope” as something closed and final, requiring no further explanation. If we could be so lucky. “No, period,” might be “nope’s” truest spoken definition. But online, nope is more like a gigantic, borderless mass of all the things we wish we could un-see.
It is this continually refreshing fountain of gross, unthinkable shit, more than the linguistics of how “nope” formed in our mouths, that drives the word’s continual usefulness and redefinition — though how the word formed in our mouths is an interesting story, too.
Nope GIFs abound, endless cascades of uncanny images, of things we’d rather forget. Rooms filled with spiders, or other forms of the dark uncanny. “Nope. Nope nope nope.” If we deny we saw it, maybe we didn’t.
It turns out that “nope” forms a more natural, almost unvoiced glottal stop on the word no, a way of more decisively closing the vocal chords. This discovery — consistent with esquesque’s definition of nope as a decisive “no, period” — comes from an essay by UC-Berkeley linguistics professor Marc Ettlinger, who posted on Slate in reply to a Quora question asking, in essence, why “nope”?
Ettlinger traced “nope” back to the late 19th century, and confirmed, using Google’s search trends, that its deployment in the digital vernacular had spiked in recent years, in large part via its usage as a go-to disgusting content internet meme. That hard-popping “p” after the “no” creates its own full-stop. And there’s a lot of shit people on the internet would prefer to cut off. Like a nest-egg stock, “nope” enjoyed a spike, tapered, and is now enjoying steady, increasing returns over time. We’re going long on “nope.”
Ettlinger’s analysis of the glottal factor is consistent with findings by Dwight Bolinger, a Harvard linguistics professor who served as president of the Linguistic Society of America before his death in 1992. In a paper titled “Thoughts on Yep and Nope,” published by the University of Southern California, Bolinger wrote that nope (and yep) were “gesture[s] of finality which may be observed at the conclusion of any number of peremptory statements.”
Peremptory or no(pe), the linguistic approach can go only so far in explaining how “nope” became almost a default response to gross, potentially-fake-though-what-does-it-matter internet smut. To do this, we look to Stan Carey, an Irish linguist/blogger and former scientist, who predicted, in “Nope Intensifies, Diversifies Grammatically,” a seminal essay in the nope pantheon, that nope would come to mean…nothing.
No category leap seems beyond [nope], no catchphrase safe from potential nope-jacking. In the infectious, rapid-fire wordplay of web forums like Imgur, nope has quickly established itself as a signature term … spawning constant novelty and repetition.
(Also don’t miss his explanation of the phenomenon “x because x”, which includes nope, because, nope.
As a negation, nope spawns everything, encompasses anything, and therefore describes … nothing. Nope is so big, so eternally applicable, that it is meaningless.
In this meaninglessness, nope finds a self-destroying irony. It is this to which we react viscerally, this we reject and embrace. Something is chasing us that we want to get away from; nope expresses this fear’s inherent childishness. The irony of nope becomes the comfort. To see the Reddit thread /nope, or the many banners reading “NOPE” under which someone has scuttled off in terror, is to come face-to-face with nope’s all-encompassing meaninglessness. It is to meet Mr. Carey’s “nope” in the flesh. Nope is its own nopeness.
In the end, “nope” is a negation, and that makes it an awfully powerful, primitively scary, tool. The way we on the internet deploy it, there will be no end of things to say “nope” to, and many of us will want to make a .GIF saying so.
But you know what? Sometimes it’s best to just: