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What is the exact meaning of following sentence? And in what situations is such a formation used?

We don't call it a/ the city of music for nothing.

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migrated from english.stackexchange.com Jun 3 '13 at 12:11

This question came from our site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts.

Context refers to the things that are happening, and the things that are being said at the time the statement was made. We cannot tell you the context- you must tell us the context. Where did you hear/see this? What was the topic of conversation? – Jim Jun 3 '13 at 6:58
I guess, this sentence means, "if this city has nothing special in music, we won't call it city of music". – Stan Jun 3 '13 at 7:11
@Stan I think not. – Kris Jun 3 '13 at 7:40
@Jim The question is different from the way you seem to understand it (or are trying to see it as). – Kris Jun 3 '13 at 7:41
@Kris- I believe you are right, but even supposing I interpreted it as the OP intended, we'd still need some context to discern an exact meaning. We could guess that somebody was visiting a city and listening to some music there and remarked on how much they liked it to the friend they were visiting. But it could also be that two people were talking about how many music CDs had been produced in a particular city. The point is, we need context that only OP can provide. – Jim Jun 3 '13 at 7:56
up vote 2 down vote accepted

Phrases of the type

[Z] [don't/doesn't] call [X] [Y] for nothing.

Are typically used as explanations for a particular behaviour or attribute, where the attribute is what X is well known for. For example:

They don't call Oxford "the city of dreaming spires" for nothing.

Where Z is they, X is Oxford and Y is the city of dreaming spires. The university buildings are grand and have many spires, which is why it got that epithet.

The other type of usage for this construction is, e.g.

They don't call him "killer" for nothing.

Y, or the epithet, is killer and emphasises what his behaviour is like. Such a remark is probably made after some violent outbust from X.

As to your particular example, it simply means that the city is regarded, at least by the person saying it, as highly musical and that the musicians are talented.

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That was my guess when I first heard it. – Suhas Jun 3 '13 at 8:43
This could be good on ELL. The expression and its variants are well documented already. grammarphobia.com/blog/2007/10/not-to-mention-the-goldfish.html – Kris Jun 3 '13 at 9:43
Of course, there's also this: << New York slang "Not for nothing" is a translation of the Italian idiom "non per niente". ... "I'm not saying this for any personal reason" or " I have nothing to gain by saying this." It is used in the same sense as "just saying". >> italki.com/question/142612 – Kris Jun 3 '13 at 9:44
@Kris Would not for nothing be used as "You are an interesting woman. Not for nothing I married you."? In Italian, that is how non per niente would be used. – kiamlaluno Jun 3 '13 at 22:44
@kiamlaluno No, that's not how we use it in English. This wordpress blog gives a good summary: notfornothin.wordpress.com/not-for-nothin – WendiKidd Jun 3 '13 at 22:48

"For nothing" in this context means "for no reason."

So the statement can be re=phrased, "We don't call it a city of music for no reason."

Taking out the two negatives, "We call it a city of music for a reason," meaning, "This city is known for its music."

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It's an example of synecdoche, which is a trope that resembles a metaphor. It is a way of representing the whole with only a part of the whole; or using a part to represent the whole. In your "city of music," the whole (i.e., the city) is being represented by a mere part of the whole (i.e., music).

As Randy Newman wailed in his ironic song "Burn On, Big River":

"Cleveland, city of lights, city of magic . . .."

Both "lights" and "magic" are synecdochal.

A teacher in a large class might call on a student:

Susie, would you please count heads for me?

Meaning: count the number of students (i.e., whole bodies) in the classroom. Heads are parts of whole students.

Put Bach on the stereo; I'm in the mood for some Bach."

A Bach record/CD is a part of the whole person/composer named Bach.

There's no problem that can't be solved with a few hundred pounds of money.

Weight represents the amount (which should be quite a lot, unless it's pennies!).

Four hired hands did the heavy lifting for me.

Part of the body for the whole body.

Put your "John Hancock" on the contract.

Your signature is part of your whole agreement. (John Hancock's signature on the U.S. Declaration of Independence is uniquely prominent at the bottom of the document.)

The quarterback tossed the pigskin 82 yards.

Footballs are no longer made from pigskin (I think), but a football's wrapping is only part of the ball.

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