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While reading a story, I've encountered with this word (a slang, as you may call) and I was wondering what meaning does this word adding to the sentence;

"As far as this town's villagers go, John Doe is pretty not terrible"

Is it adding some meaning like "he is terrible but not that much/he is not that good but also not that bad" ?

  • What is the source? Doesn't seem to be normal modern usage. – user3169 Mar 16 '18 at 5:44
  • I know. It is just a slang that I've encountered from some story that I was reading. – Drfub Mar 17 '18 at 23:34
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There is a question on EL&U that discusses the precise meaning "pretty good" and Hippietrail's answer explains it as "Good, to an imprecise degree." So "pretty not terrible" is "not terrible" to an imprecise degree.

In this conversation, the speaker doesn't want to say John Doe is a good person, but they also don't want to say he is a terrible person, so they say he is "pretty not-terrible" (probably only when compared to the rest of the villagers who are terrible in the speaker's opinion).

The speaker is saying that John is about the same degree of "not-terrible" as the degree that someone described as "pretty good" would be "good" or "pretty terrible" would be "terrible".

Suppose I am learning how to cook, and I ask my friend to taste the very first dish I made. Because I'm still learning, I didn't do it well, so it's not good but it is edible. My friend might say "Hey, this is pretty not-terrible! I'm sure you'll do better next time." If I had done it well, but not perfectly, my friend might say "Hey, this is pretty good for a first try! I'm sure the next one will be even better." If I did a bad job on my first dish, my friend might say "This is pretty terrible - maybe you should learn woodworking instead."

Another example is

A lot of the demon lords from Lightspeed Rescue were pretty not-lame. (*)

Those demon lords weren't cool, but they weren't exactly lame either. (I just searched for a real life example, so don't ask me about which demon lords are lame or not - I don't know!)

  • Oh thanks for your answer. Might I ask one more thing if you don't mind, just to figure it out. So.. what speaker is trying to say by "pretty not terrible" is... "(comparing to villagers in her hometown) John doe is not that bad but also not that good" – Drfub Mar 17 '18 at 23:35
  • @Drfub I don't know exactly, because it would depend on the rest of the story. I think that it might be that she doesn't want the person she's talking to to think that she really likes John. She is saying "eh, he's OK compared to the other terrible people in this town, but I don't think he's great." – ColleenV parted ways Mar 18 '18 at 12:58
  • So in conclusion: speaker things John isn't that terrible comparing to villagers in speaker's town. But speaker also thinks that John isn't that good/awesome overall, either? – Drfub Mar 18 '18 at 14:22
  • @Drfub I'd say that this is a situation where the speaker might have used "pretty nice", but the whole level of those villagers is so bad that none of them actually deserves a description "good/nice". In this person's mind, it can only be "degrees of not-terrible-ness". Among all the other terrible guys, this one is one of the least terrible. – tenebris2020 Mar 18 '18 at 16:18
  • Well I thought that one too but I can't imagine a context where speaker means that John Doe is pretty nice, because if speaker wanted, she would say it directly. So I guess in this context, as you say, comparing to villagers in speaker's town (as speaker starts sentence with "as far as they go") John Doe isn't that bad comparing to them. But in overall, speaker also thinks that he is not the best/perfect/awesome. I guess I got it right this time? :) – Drfub Mar 18 '18 at 16:26

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