How to threaten people and spoil jokes using Gricean Implicatures
The context is that the author of this entertaining bookstore twitter account was nominated for an award and so is clearly joke-threatening the other nominees. But the literal meaning of the tweet (reproduced in 1) isn’t a threat at all: giving people not-poisoned gift baskets seems like a perfectly nice thing to do.
(1) And anyone who wants to make some NOT POISONED gift baskets for the other nominees will be handsomely rewarded. (Original)
However, since by default one tends to assume that gift baskets are not poisoned, the author violated the Gricean maxim of manner (be brief and clear) by not saying (2) instead.
(2) And anyone who wants to make some gift baskets for the other nominees will be handsomely rewarded. (Shorter version)
So based on the fact that the author bothered to specify that the gift baskets were not to be poisoned, and especially to do so in all caps when it would probably never have occurred to anyone to poison them in the first place, we can infer that the author is actually suggesting that their twitter followers should make poisoned gift baskets for the other nominees but that they want to maintain plausible deniability, approximately the meaning in (3).
(3) And anyone who wants to make some poisoned gift baskets for the other nominees will be handsomely but secretly rewarded. (Interpretation of the author’s meaning)
Another example of a veiled threat like this is the expression “That’s a nice ___ you have there. It’d be a shame if something were to happen to it.” This formula is so well-known that it has a entry on tvtropes.
But why would the author of a popular twitter account make an easily-decipherable veiled threat in such a public forum? If any poisoned gift baskets were to show up at the houses of nominees, this person would be the most logical suspect. I think it’s pretty clear that the author is deliberately violating the maxim of quality (be truthful): because it’s easy to determine that what they meant was the opposite of what they said, we now infer that they didn’t actually mean that at all and were instead joking. So what the author actually meant was something more like (4):
(4) It’s kind of funny to contemplate the idea of making poisoned gift baskets for the other nominees but obviously that would never actually happen.
Why is the author’s original tweet in (1) funnier than my just-as-true paraphrase in (4)?
I think it’s for the same reason as explaining a joke doesn’t make it funnier: part of the enjoyment of a joke is the “ah-ha” moment when the pieces and the references finally click in your head. The few milliseconds that it takes to detangle the Gricean and pragmatic meanings provide that “ah-ha” moment.
If you look at the responses to this tweet, it seems like the layers of meaning are quite clear to the audience: the author’s twitter followers play along with the joke:
(5) (response) I totally did NOT just make arsenic cupcakes and ship them out to various addresses with a tag reading “congratulations”.