My services to English literature cannot be underestimated. Yes, you read that right. And yes, it means exactly what it says: that no estimate of my services, however low, could be as low as the reality. Which is the exact opposite of what half the people who use such phrases intend them to mean.
I’m not perhaps being 101 per cent fair to myself. I once gave a glowing New Statesman review to a first novel by one Chaim Bermant which, he told me later, encouraged him to write many more. They were good novels, not great novels, but there aren’t many British-Jewish novels, and he was a great man: later for years the chief columnist of London’s Jewish Chronicle, and a brave one, ever ready, to his credit —and its, for allowing him — to challenge many Jewish orthodoxies, not least the fantasy that Israel can do no wrong. I wonder how long he’d last on today’s JC. So if my review gave him just a little leg ahead, maybe I’ve contributed my two ha’porth at least to British-Jewish literature. (Two ha’porth? Think four pice, so spelt.)
And, who knows, the rest of this column may one day save some would-be writer from an absurd error of English. But let’s not split hairs. For those — alas, they’re often journalists, when not politicians — who misuse poor, long-winded cannot be underestimated (or sometimes understated) are not doing so either. To cite a recent example, I met that phrase applied in a sports report to Mitch Johnson’s influence on the recent Ashes series. What the reporter meant was overestimated.
To make that clear, turn the rival phrases into simple English. For cannot be underestimated read is/are very low. For cannot be overestimated read is/are very high. And then ask yourself: are Johnson’s bowling skills very low or very high?
So why do people write cannot be underestimated, when they mean the opposite? The main reason, as with most misuse of language, is that other people do. A minor one, quite often, is that they are journos with hectares of grey space to fill and the paper has to go to press on time. But they do have a thin excuse. They’re confusing cannot with should not.
Put plainly, that sounds a very thin excuse indeed. We all can do things which we should not do, and most of us know the difference. I know, for instance, that I shouldn’t speak low of high skills, even those of an Aussie fast bowler. But doll up our thinking with some five-syllable word like underestimate, and maybe a bit of confusion is pardonable.
Living with it
And there is another excuse, or at least a parallel, that curious phrase, I can’t speak too highly of him. Does it mean that his virtues are above all praise? Well, it may. But in most people’s mouths, mine included, it means “frankly, I don’t think much of him”, the little word too being ignored, or understood as very, as it quite often is — I don’t know too many millionaires, for example.
So why is it all right to ignore too, but wrong to use underestimate when you mean overestimate? Partly because ignoring something isn’t quite the same as standing it on its head, whereas under really is the direct reverse of over. But essentially because English idiom is what it is, not what it strictly ought to be. The misuse of cannot be underestimated hasn’t yet reached respectability. But if in time enough people take to using this phrase when they mean the opposite, old fogeys like me may be turning over in our graves but, as the idiom puts it, we’ll just have to live with it.