Ben Zimmer's first column as William Safire's official replacement for the On Language column at the New York Times:
Yes and no can accrue symbolic heft through what linguists call “zero nominalization,” whereby a noun is created from some other part of speech without adding a typical suffix like –ness or –ation. Nouny versions of yes and no have enjoyed quite a ride from the political class, but they also get plenty of play in pop culture. On the positive side of the ledger, Wendy Macleod’s play and subsequent movie adaptation “The House of Yes” tells the story of an entitled rich girl who will not be denied. Maria Dahvana Headley’s 2006 memoir of a year spent accepting dates from any man who asked her out is titled, naturally enough, “The Year of Yes.”
But the power of no is even more primal, perhaps because it is so often among the first words that English speakers learn as children. The poet James Tate imagines it as a territory of sorts, writing, “I went out of myself into no, into nowhere.” In slangy vernacular, no can turn into a material substance: the teenage title character in the 2007 movie “Juno” protests, “That’s a big, fat sack of no!” Bauer-Griffin Online, a paparazzi photo blog, critiques celebrities with snarky headlines like “Kelly Preston Is a Bucket of ‘No’ ” or “Phoebe Price, Pile of ‘No.’ ” In our culture of negativity, all too often the noes have it.