I dunno, it’s nothing — why do you ask?

Burt's Eye View

Is there any word lurking in the English language that’s more jam-packed, crammed and stuffed full of nuance, meaning and danger than the word “nothing”?

Ask a 2-year-old what he’s up to and he will nothing you to death.

You come home from work and find your spouse curled in a fetal position beneath the dining room table. Your spouse whimpers and points toward the living room.

You tiptoe in and see little Jimmy sitting quietly on the floor with a coloring book and a tube of lipstick. You take a deep breath and ask, “So, Jimmy, what’s going on?”

Jimmy stares up at you with those big brown eyes, sways to a tune you can’t hear, and draws out that fearsome word, “Nothiiiiiing.”

You look around. The drapes that used to cover the windows are crumpled cloth balls in the corner. Letter-shaped frosted oats from the box of Alpha-Bits you didn’t remember you had are strewn across the carpet. Mustaches decorate every family photo that remains on the walls. (To be fair, Aunt Mable already had a mustache, but not quite as walrusy as the one she sports now.) There’s a kitten on the computer keys even though you don’t own a cat.

“Jimmy, what did you do?”

Jimmy scans the room, mystified at the question. “Nothing.”

An Alpha-Bit crunches beneath your shoe. “Then who did this?”

Little Jimmy shrugs. “I dunno.”

Like Mary’s little lamb, everywhere that “nothing” goes, “I don’t know” is sure to follow.

I don’t know how “nothing” became such a threat. To me, nothing is a goal.

“What’s left to do on that work project?”

“What’s on the schedule today?”

“What are we going to do at home tonight?”

I love it when the answer to each of those questions is, “Nothing!” Why? I don’t know. Bliss, I suppose.

Instead, “nothing” usually means I’m in trouble. Again.

My dad ran out to the barn one day to find water spraying from a broken pipe, two cows galloping in circles and a grain barrel overturned. Oh, and I happened to be standing there, too.

“What did you do?” he yelped as he dodged a bucking cow to clamp off the water.

“Nothing,” I said.

Dad crammed the cows back into their stanchions, picked up the barrel and handed me a shovel. “What happened here?”

I dug into a scoop of grain. “I dunno.”

Somehow, Dad blamed me even though I assured him I knew nothing, nothing happened and I did nothing. I don’t know why he was always so suspicious in these situations.

The menace of the word “nothing” probably peaks at its perilous worst when it’s uttered by a spouse.

I can see on my sweetie’s face that she’s troubled. So I ask, “Honey, what’s wrong?”


The logical response is to say, “OK,” pick up my newspaper, and finish reading the funnies.  Look, I knew that it really was “something,” but I figured if she wanted me to know, she’d tell me. I wanted to honor her by respecting her privacy.

Hoo-boy, was I wrong.

Later, during the debriefing, she asks, “Why didn’t you keep talking to me?”

I said the only thing that made sense at the moment: “I dunno.”

It was something.

— Write sweet nothings to Cole at burtseyeview@tribtoday.com or on the Burton W. Cole page on Facebook.