There is something Griceian about Holden Caulfield. The novel, “The catcher in
the rye,” was published in 1951, when Grice was teaching at Oxford. That was
the first coincidence.
Apart from their respectively philosophical and literary interests, H. P.
Grice’s oeuvre and J. D. Salinger's novel, can also justified on the basis of
their linguistic significance.
"The Catcher in the Rye" has been compared by many critics with 'The Adventures
of Huckleberry Finn' on various counts. Grice’s oeuvre hasn’t. “Huckleberry” is
not only as a great work of literary art, but also a valuable study in 1884
“dialect.” “The Catcher in the Rye” is an example of 1951 dialect – and
Most critics who looked at The Catcher in the Rye at the time of its
publication thought that its language was a true and authentic rendering of
colloquial speech – as most tuttees who attended Grice’s tutorials thought that
Grice’s speech was an authentic rendering of a don’s dialect. The language of
Holden Caulfield, the narrator, strikes the ear as an accurate rendering of the
informal speech of an intelligent, educated, North-eastern type.
One commonly noted feature of the novel’s language has been its comic effect or
implicature. As Salinger asks the editors in the biopic film “Rebel in the
rye,” “But you didn’t find it at least funny?”And yet there has never been an
extensive investigation of the language itself – and its implicatures.
Even though Holden's language is authentic speech, recording it was certainly
not the major m-intention of Salinger (By “m-intention,” we mean the intention
behind Salinger’s uttering his novel. It’s a term of art introduced by Grice –
‘m-intention’ stands for the intention an utterer has to mean this or that).
Salinger’s primary task was NOT that of reproducing the exact speech of this or
that population. Yet Holden Caulfield speaks a recognizable language. Salinger
achieves the goal of giving Holden an extremely typical speech, yet overlaid
with strong personal idiosyncrasies.
There are two major speech habits which are Holden Caulfield’s s own, which are
endlessly repeated throughout “The catcher in the ryle’, and which are,
nevertheless, typical enough of the speech of his population, so that Holden
Caulfield can be both typical and individual in his use of these ‘habits’.
It is certainly common to end thoughts with a loosely dangling “and all” just
as it is common to add an insistent 'I really did,' 'It really was.'
But Holden Caulfield uses these phrases to such an overpowering degree that
they become a clear part of the flavour of “The catcher in the rye.” They
become a part of Holden Caulfield himself, and actually help to characterize
Holden's “AND all” -- and its twins, “OR something,” and “OR anything” – may be
alleged to serve no real, consistent linguistic function, some logician might
say. Their value is in the implicature.
The expressions give a sense of looseness of expression – especially the
disjunctive expressions, “or something,” “or anything”. “And all” has a
different logic, admittedly. Often these expressions signify that Holden knows
there is more that could be said about the issue at hand, but he is not going
to bother going into it: he'll leave it at the level of the implicature. Some
“I won’t go into how my parents were occupied AND ALL before they had me.”
“They are nice AND ALL, my parents are. I'm not going to tell you my whole
autobiography OR ANYTHING.”
“That is splendid and clear-thinking AND ALL.”
But, alas, for the Griciean, just as often, the utterance of these expressions
by Caulfield, is purely arbitrary, with no apparent discernible meaning or
“He is my brother AND ALL.”
“It was in the Revolutionary War AND ALL.”
“It was December AND ALL.”
“No gloves OR ANYTHING.”
“It was right in the pocket AND ALL.”
This habit seems, if anything, indicative of Caulfield’s tendency to
“generalize”, to find the “all” in the one. Salinger has an ear not only for
idiosyncrasies of diction and syntax, but for the psychological processes
behind them. Let us examine one of Holden Caulfield's favourite phrases already
mentioned, “and all”. Some examples:
“She looked so damn nice, the way she kept going around and around in her blue
coat -- AND ALL --
as if each experience wore a halo. Caulfield’s trope seems to be “ab uno disce
omnes.” Caulfield abstracts and generalizes wildly.
Regarding Holden Caulfield’s *second* most obvious idiosyncrasy, it would be as
if, in a phony world, Holden Caulfield feels compelled to re-inforce his
sincerity and Griceian truthfulness and candour constantly with "It really is"
or "It really did.” There seems to be something of a double function (to echo
Buehler, a language philosopher favoured by Popper) about these quasi-perpetual
insistences of Holden's. Caulfield is so aware of the danger of slipping into
“phoniness” himself that he has to repeat over and over ‘I really MEAN it’ –
note the Griceian use of ‘mean,’ as applied to the utterer himself. and ‘t
really does.’ Caulfield uses this idiosyncrasy of insistence almost every time
that he makes an affirmation.
Allied to Holden's habit of insistence is his phrase that J. O. Urmson (a
colleague of Grice) would call a parenthetical, “if you want to know the truth.”
One is able to find a Griceian characterisation in this habitual parenthetical
too. Caulfield uses this conditional parenthetical phrase – what J. L. Austin
would have as a ‘biscuit conditional’ – “If you’re hungry, there are biscuits
in the cupboard” -- only AFTER affirmations, just as he uses
“It really does.” But he restricts “if you want to know the truth” usually
after the personal affirmations, where he is consciously being frank or candid.
“I have no wind, if you want to KNOW the truth.” (Seeing that one of Grice’s
maxims is “Try to make your conversational contribution one that is true,” it’s
a bit like, “Honestly” – or as Albritton would say, ‘otiose’, unless we
“I don’t even think that bastard had a handkerchief, if you want to KNOW the
This may be contrasted with “That bastard didn’t have a handkerchief, if you
want to know the truth.” By using “I don’t even think,” the utterance-ending
parenthetical is not THAT otiose, and in any case, it may have the utterer
calculating TWO implicatures: That the truth is that the individual referred to
did not have a handkerchief, AND that Caulfield does not think that the
individual referred to had one (cfr. “p” and “I believe that p.”)
“I'm a pacifist, if you want to KNOW the truth.”
“She had quite a lot of sex appeal, too, if you really want to know [+> the
“I was damn near bawling, I felt so damn happy, if you want to KNOW the truth.”
These personal idiosyncrasies of Holden's Griceian utterances (qua blouts of
Grice’s maxims) are in keeping with general language. Yet they are so much a
part of Holden and of the flavour of “The Catcher in the Rye” that they are
much of what makes Holden to be Holden Caulfield. They are the most memorable
feature of the language of “The Catcher in the Rye.” Although always in
character, the rest of Holden's speech is more “typical” than individual or
The distinctive quality of Caulfield’s language comes, paradoxically, from its
lack of a distinctive quality. Holden's informal vernacular is particularly
typical in its 'vulgarity' and 'obscenity.' No one familiar with speech could
seriously contend that Salinger over-played his hand in this respect. On the
contrary, Caulfield's restraint help to characterise him as a sensitive
‘utterer’ who avoids the most strongly forbidden terms, and who never uses
vulgarity in a self-conscious or phony way to help him be 'one of the gang.'
Four-letter expletives, for example, are never used as a part of Holden's
A four-letter expletive appears in “The catcher in the rye” four times,
admittedly, but only when Caulfield disapprovingly discusses its wide
appearance on walls.
The Divine name is used habitually by Holden only in the comparatively weak
"for God's sake," "God,"and, "goddam." The stronger and usually more offensive
"for Chrissake", or "Jesus,” or "Jesus Christ,” are used habitually by Ackley
and Stradlater, not by Caulfield.
Caulfield does use them, granted, but only when he feels the need for a strong
expression. He almost never uses "for Chrissake" in an “un-emotional”
situation. "Goddam" seems to be Caulfield’s favorite adjective. “Goddam” is
used with no relationship to its original meaning (“damned by God,” that is) OR
to Holden's attitude toward the noun to which the adjective is attached.
“Goddam” simply expresses an emotional feeling toward the object: either
favourable, or “pro” (as Grice’s favourite philosopher, C. L. Stevenson, would
have it) -- as in 'goddam hunting cap' --, or unfavourable, as in 'ya goddam
moron' -- or (if we go by Strawson’s truth-value gap theory), indifferent, as
in 'coming in the goddam windows.' The simpler “Damm” is used interchangeably
with “goddam.” No differentiation in its implicature seems detectable.
Other crude words are also often used by Caulfield. "Ass" keeps a fairly
restricted meaning as a part of the human anatomy. But it is used in a variety
of ways. “Ass” can refer simply to that specific part of the body ('I moved my
ass a little'), or be a part of a trite expression ('freezing my ass off'; 'in
a half-assed way'), or be an expletive ('Game, my ass.').
"Hell" is perhaps the most versatile expression in Holden's “procedures,” as
Grice would put it. "Hell" serves most of the meanings and constructions which
Mencken lists in his essay on linguistic ‘Profanity.’ So far is Holden's use of
"hell" from its original LITERAL meaning that he can utter the utterance, “We
had a helluva time.” -- to mean (alla Grice) that he and Phoebe had a decidedly
*pleasant* time downtown shopping for shoes. The most common function of "hell"
is as the second part of a simile, in which a thing can be either 'hot as hell'
or, strangely, "cold as hell” (the implicature here seems to have a rather
difficult ‘calculability,’ to use Grice’s jargon).
There’s also: "Sad as hell' or 'playful as hell'; 'old as hell' or 'pretty as
hell.' Like all of these words, "hell" has no close relationship to its
original eschatological meaning (antonym: heaven – cfr. Dante Alighieri on
Both “bastard” and “sonuvab*tch” have also drastically changed in meaning – and
mean ‘by implicature.’ Neither no longer, of course, in Holden's vocabulary,
has any connection with the accidents of birth.
Unless used in a trite simile, “bastard” is a pretty strong word, reserved for
things and people Holden particularly dislikes, especially, as you can guess,
'phonies.' “Sonuvab*tch” has an even stronger meaning to Holden. Caulfield
uses it only in the deepest anger. When, for example, Holden is furious with
Stradlater over his treatment of Jane Gallagher, Holden repeats again and again
that he 'kept calling him a moron sonuvab*tch' . The use of crude language in
“The Catcher in the Rye” increases, as we should expect, when Holden is
REPORTING a conversation. When he is directly addressing his addressee,
Holden's use of such language drops off almost entirely.
There is also an increase in this type of language when any of the characters
are excited or angry. Thus, when Caulfield is apprehensive over Stradlater's
treatment of Jane, his “goddams” increase suddenly to seven on a single page.