21 August 2016

Mostly Philology

~ For some months now, I have noticed this phenomenon: some people being interviewed by journalists begin their every reply with the word "So ... ". (Rather as, for years, some of us began every answer to a question with "Well, ... er ...".)

Does anybody have any ideas about how, why, where, this arose?

I have never noticed any analogous changes in the use of particles in the Attic Greek of different periods. Have you?

~ I rather think that the more extreme "Yer-knowers" are now an aging minority. Yes? No?

~ "I was like" meaning "I said" still seems to me as common as ever among the bimboid classes to whose noisily confidential exchanges I hungrily listen as I sit in my no 35 'bus into Oxford's City Centre. Have you monitored this usage recently?

~ One of our politicians claimed that those now flocking into our Labour Party are Trotskyites. An opponent ridiculed this by saying "Most of the people I saw there were grandfathers and grandmothers". At which end might one begin an analysis of this exchange?

~ One day recently, the main News item was the "issue" of Pakistani and Bangladeshi women being so tremendously difficult to persuade to "enter the workplace". The very next day, the main item was the "issue" of flirting, stroking, groping, touching-up, et huius generis alia, in places where men and women work together. I have heard no member of the Commentariate suggesting that there might, even hypothetically, be any relationship immediate or even mediated between these two "issues". Have you?

~ Do you think "issues" are here to stay, or will they soon be circumvented by a new circumlocution?

My theory about "issues" is that the previous term, "problems", acquired a bad reputation because of aggressive usages such as "I'm a murderer and an embezzler ... (sticking his chin out) ... do you have problems with that?" Thus "problems" became things that it was increasingly difficult to admit to having, and a neutral or non-loaded term was required. Evidence for, evidence against this hypothesis?

40 comments:

Lillibet said...

I've noticed this too. The other thing I've noticed lately is the substitution of "two times" for "twice".

Doodler said...

.... and even "three times" for "thrice".

Pete said...

With a pause after it, "so" seems to sound more confident, enough to escape interruption by an interrogator; "well" sounds shorthand for "I do not know" or "you got me", so it is easily interrupted by another question and seen as an answer of ignorance or guilt in and of itself by journalists. Just my take.

Joshua said...

I particularly hate "moving forward", meaning "in the future".

The Inca peoples (as well as Bl JHN) felt that we walk through life backwards, as we see the past from which we retreat, while remaining ignorant of the future to which we advance; hence Quechua sensibly reverses the usual English metaphors. This may or may not be relevant.

vetusta ecclesia said...


The use of the verbal expression "to be, like ..." as a substitute for to say, feel, think etc is by no means confined to what I think you mean by the bimboid classes. I'll bet it is widespread among even the highest flying undergraduates and researchers of "the sacred town" wherein you reside.

memoryman said...

My pet bugbears are incredible/incredibly(the lady weather forecaster today even spoke of incredibly mild temperatures) and convince instead of persuade(Can you convince him to come?)

Uncle Brian said...

“So ...” is predominantly American, I think. On comments threads at U.S. websites it’s not uncommon to see it as the first word of a comment, unconnected with anything that’s gone before.

Lillibet mentions “two times”, which is another Americanism, I believe. Even “one time” seems to be much commoner than “once”, in American usage. And as for “thrice”, the word seems to be almost completely unknown to Americans.

“Issue” — I’m afraid this one seems to be here to stay. The much older expression “to take issue with …” never attracted the same kind of criticism, as far as I know, and trying to enforce that restricted usage now would be like trying to put toothpaste back in the tube.

Matthew Roth said...

“Thrice” is perfectly good English, but it never has felt natural, and I think most Americans prefer to say “two or three times” instead of “twoce or thrice.”

Matthew Roth said...

“I was like” is not so much a replacement for “I said” as it indicates the interior emotion or thought expressed verbally & non–verbally, at least in my experience.

Admon said...

I am told by certain linguists that they toy with the idea that the "so" you mention is intended to give the impression that it refers to a previous (perhaps non-existent) conversation. To feign an established line of communication with the person which we are jumping back to. I'm not sure if I am entirely convinced, but it certainly is interesting.

Sue Sims said...

Some of these observations are things I have to teach to my pupils studying A-Level English Language.

1. So is something called a discourse marker. Discourse markers have a load of functions, but overall they 'mark' things in conversation: a response to a question, a change of focus, emphasising something said earlier, and so on. So used in this fashion (there are lots of other uses of so, of course) 'marks' the fact that the speaker is responding to a query or statement. It also acts as a hedge in some cases: these are words or phrases which denote slight uncertainly, and are frequently used at the well can be used in this way as well as (no pun intended) a discourse marker.

I first noticed so as initial discourse marker in the speech of my eldest son (then in his mid-twenties) about four years ago; once I'd spotted it there, it seemed to be ubiquitous on radio and television. I can't find any reference to this usage in the OED online: the most recent citation for so used as an emphatic adverb - "It's so not cool...") is from 2005, so the discourse marker/hedge usage has presumably arisen since then. One can see the logic here: so is a conjunction implying a logical connection (I turned up the volume so I could hear better); from there it's moved to a discourse marker implying a (logical) response to something just said.

2. Yer know: I'd agree that it's now more or less confined to the middle-aged and upwards. It's one of several fillers which have mostly been replaced by like among younger speakers: sort of, kind of, and so on. I have a friend whose English is full of these fillers, her current favourite being sort of thing: "Have you read this week's Catholic Herald sort of thing? There's an article by this priest sort of thing."

3. Like: the usage you mention here - a quotative, introducing reported speech, especially when the speaker’s aware that the report isn’t verbatim - is indeed still ubiquitous, but I'd take (ahem) issue with your apparent limitation of it to the 'bimboid class' (lovely phrase). It's definitely more common among females than males, but young men use it as well, and although it's partly class-related, I've heard it from my students from all social classes except the highest, who aren't generally sent to state sixth-forms. Perhaps the upper classes don't talk so loudly on buses, or have Daddy's chauffeur drop them in the Broad rather than legging it.) It corresponds exactly to the use of go among my peers: "So I went, 'You're not getting away with that' and she went, 'Who's gonna stop me?'" Like as a quotative seems to have been around for quite a long time: the earliest citation in the OED is from 1970 from (naturally) the USA. I don't remember hearing it over here until the 1990s; it may have come over earlier than that, but the OED's first British English example is from 1993.

4: Issue in the sense of 'problem' has been around for some time - the first unambiguous example in the OED (sense 16b), which is defined as "A problem or difficulty with a service or facility; a failing in any system, esp. regarded as a matter to be resolved", is from 1978. You won't be surprised to see that it's again an American usage which has moved across the Atlantic. Your explanation as to why it's replaced problem may be correct; my own suggestion would be that problem has connotations of something soluble (like those irritating arithmetic 'problems' one had to solve at school, often dealing with sharing fruit between children, or how long it would take a labourers to do something or other), whereas issue somehow sounds grander, all-encompassing, and thus probably much harder to deal with.

Sue Sims said...

Having discussed most of your, like, issues (apart from the Trotskyite one, which doesn't seem to be philological), may I raise one of my own? Does anyone else reading this - assuming you've managed to plough your way through it all - dislike as much as I do the fashion for the 'historical present' in radio/television broadcasts about the past? You know the sort of thing I mean: "So the fire is spreading out of Pudding Lane and the citizens are all grabbing their possessions and running for their lives." John Humphrys had a major argument about it with Melvin Bragg a couple of years ago. The idea apparently is that it makes the past more exciting and vivid - but it's such a patronising attitude: "You oiks are so unimaginative that we have to spice everything up by pretending it's happening now."

Lillibet said...

A few more annoying linguistic phenomena which one notices, at least in North America, are the non-declarative sentence (https://vimeo.com/3829682),
the disappearance of the past participle (I have wrote, she should have went) and the throat fry https://youtu.be/UsE5mysfZsY.

DrAndroSF said...

The Pakistani women/sexual "harassment" at work "issue" is just one classic example of the entire structure of our society under the new religion of Social Progress: from race to immigration to the sexes in schools, work, military, etc. the High-Minded create situations over and over again, based on supposedly unimpeachable moral grounds, situations which any man with an ounce of phronesis could tell you will end not only badly but worse than the original "problem." And do.

And while I'm at it, one of the worst offenders of late, a man who seems entirely innocent of phronesis, is the incumbent now incomprehensibly occupying the Throne of Peter.

Stephen said...

So, like, many an estate lawyer has had to take issue with the deceased's issue, you know, and often more than one time. You got a problem with that?

John said...

The perpetual present was a delight when Damon Runyon did it. But on a news broadcast? Perhaps not such a good idea.

Simple Simon said...

All the posts thus far have been Awesome, except one. The exception was Mighty.

Adrian said...

I wonder if 'so' as a discourse marker in interviews comes from the fact that many of those who appear on, say, Radio 4's 'Today' programme belong to the classes whose working lives are nowadays spent almost entirely in meetings. I know that as a chairman I tend to sum up each item with a 'so' - "So ... we'll use Mr Longstaffe's field for the fete and ask Mr Melmotte to underwrite the marquee ..." It implies that what is being said has been fully agreed upon, so that to seek to continue the discussion would be time-wasting or nit-picking.
'Issues' seems to have been dealt with pretty fully already, except for the wierd expression 'issues around' meaning 'concerns about'(e.g. 'issues around education access'). I dislike it intensely but cannot see how it has arisen.

Hrodgar said...

I don't know if the historical present is "more exciting," and I'll take your word for it that it's overused (I don't watch TV or listen to radio very often), but it does seem that it would likely be more immersive, in a "put yourself in their shoes" sort of way. Given that the primary purpose of most television documentaries is less to educate than to entertain, it seems like a natural shift, probably tracking with analogous trends in the news.

Charlesdawson said...

Disinterested used where uninterested is meant;
refute used where deny is meant;
literally used in place of very to convey something extreme, not something factual.
I have recently been studying websites of charities devoted to rehoming unwanted pets and have come across forever extensively used as an adjective where permanent would seem to be the appropriate term, as in forever home.
And while I'm complaining, I do wish that people who want to say vulnerable would either deign to pronounce the first [l], or if they can't, simply say at risk.

Thomas Beyer said...

The "back story 'so'":

http://www.npr.org/2015/09/03/432732859/so-whats-the-big-deal-with-starting-a-sentence-with-so

TheOFloinn said...

The "historical present" is a normal usage in German: "So, last Thursday I stand at the corner..." Come to think of it, the initial "so" may also come from there. Given the considerable German influx, it may have entered American English in that fashion. However, I have also heard the initial "so" assigned to Irish usage by Seamus Heaney as a way of clearing the decks of any previous discourse when beginning a new tale.

I have heard "like" as a quote explained as being a pseudo-quote: the speaker is not trying to express exactly what was said, but only its gist.

"Once" and "twice" are common in America, but "thrice" is not. I hardly ever hear "two times" but will often hear "three times." But these are only impressions.

John Vasc said...

Re 'Trotskyites' - Peter Hitchens wrote this week that the true-believing followers of Trotsky called themselves 'Trotskyists', and that 'Trotskyite' was an insulting term used by Stalin and subsequently by Stalinists.

Just a thought, but in that case a Trotskyist might deliberately 'reserve the truth' in claiming that there are 'no Trotskyites' in the Labour Party.

....

I assume that 'problems' were replaced by 'issues around X or Y' because 'problem' has a pejorative ring of moral absolutes: how much less judgmental to say one has an 'issue around drugs' or 'anger issues'...(I expect a serial killer might make the latter claim. Surely only a Pharisee would gainsay him.:-)

...

Why interviewees insist on parroting the idiot word 'so' on BBC Radio is a mystery. It reminds me that the one question that interviewers in the 1980s/90s were solemnly ordered by the Beeb never to use on pain of death was David Frost's lazy favourite: 'So how did it all begin?'

Alan said...

Historical present is long established in jokes, of course: "A chicken walks into a library...."

Another oddity I've noticed in recent years is "Can I get ....?" where I would have said, "Could I have...?" or "Could you give me....?" or just "....., please." I distinctly remember where I first heard it - Ritazza in Paddington station, and the speaker's Australian accent. It now seems ubiquitous. I would only say, "Can I get...." when the request was unusual and I would be surprised to get a "Yes", e.g. in Costa, I might ask, "Can I get a hacksaw here?" I wouldn't ask, "Can I get an espresso?"

Mr Grumpy said...

This is fun!

As a bus user in The Other Place I can assure you that "like" is ubiquitous among the anything but bimboid bright sparks who attend Hills Road Sixth Form College.

I believe we owe "issue" to the management fad that asserted "there are no problems, only opportunities". Once this had become managerial orthodoxy and the problems had nevertheless not gone away, there was a need for a new word for them, so "issue" was pressed into service.

I'm sure I don't need to remind you that in Churchspeak, the creole of those who sit in offices in Westminster, issues are always addressed prayerfully.

Jacobi said...

“Yer knowers” are the one I can't stand. Why ask if we already knew. The “so” and I probably use it myself, stems from a pre-supposition that there is now rarely any widely accepted agreement on any subject in the Camera/ TV/internet age as we start to put our opinion across.

But I like this word “problem”. Must use it more and fewer of these “, whatever they are called!

Matthew Roth said...

“So” also has a connotation of skepticism in reply to someone’s proposal.

I think you are right regarding “issue,” but it still has a neutral meaning, whereas “problem” is negative.

Lepanto said...

It's a relief that someone else has noticed this use of 'So' where 'Well' might be expected. I am fairly sure that it started with American interviewees offering opinions/explanations on TV/radio and is now used as an affectation by many Brits.

John Nolan said...

We could go on. 'Five times more' instead of 'five times as much/many', 'five times less' rather than 'a fifth as much'; the use of 'appeal' as a transitive verb as well as 'protest' being used transitively when it shouldn't be - six years ago I was happy to 'protest the Pope' although even the egregious know-it-all Stephen Fry subscribed to a movement which was actually protesting against the Pope. Perhaps he is a clandestine Catholic - now there's a thought.

Sue Sims: when I hear a television historian using the past tense he or she immediately goes up in my estimation. As did Louis Bouyer when in his memoirs he used the past historic in the first person, describing the new Mass as 'l'avorton que nous produisîmes'

And in this age of misplaced apostrophes, congratulations to Fr Hunwicke in correctly using one in the abbreviation of omnibus. Implet in the Corn and High/Terror me Motoris Bi ...

Sue Sims said...

Oh yes, 'prayerfully'!

In my previous existence as an Evangelical who perforce attended numerous prayer groups, I was always guiltily amused by the ubiquity of 'just': 'Lord, we just ask you that you would just heal our brother that he may just praise You...' I suppose it's a sort of linguistic humility, but it could be difficult to keep a straight face hearing prayers like 'Lord, we just pray for peace in the Middle East.'

Thomas said...

Evangelical intercessions that use "just" as a mark of hesitant humility have a proper communal response of "mmm ...", a quiet hum of assent accompanied by a slow nod of the head.

GOR said...

The substitution of ‘So’ for ‘Well’ in these United States began - I would posit - in the 1980s by Democrats in opposition to Ronald Reagan.

Reagan was noted for beginning virtually all his replies to questions with: “Well…” A pregnant pause and a mischievous smile followed, allowing him to carry it off – like the timing of a stand-up comedian (he was an actor after all…).

Jonathan Dandridge said...

Imagine Apollo 13 - "Houston we have an issue". Would Houston have reacted as swiftly? There are times when the correct word is crucial.

S Thorfinn said...

It is impolitic in the workplace to reference problems or even issues -- only challenges & opportunities.

Lillibet said...

I think "so" is already evolving to "I mean". I've heard it several times lately, most recently this evening.

Alan said...

On "Trotsyite/ist" - the "ite" ending is usually pejorative. Across a range of religious opinion, enquire of Pugin, Irving, Kensit and Paisley.

On "issue" - I think the contributor above hits the nail on the head with management-speak's dislike of the negative. As a senior trade union rep in the GEC group - back in the days when Lord Weinstock was a power in the land - I knew if I was called into the personnel department and the senior manager began by praising the company's great performance that a large redundancy announcement was a minute or so down the line. (I subsequently blagged a Ph.D. for research into management communication in which I wearily observed of one such communication that "the tone is relentlessly optimistic.")

matthewgaul said...

I used to try to avoid starting sentences with "so," until I noticed how much Waugh does it in his early years, and how well it worked.

So now I use it. :-)

tubbs said...

News Anchor on the street: “And how is this impacting you?”
Me: “I ain’t constipated!"

Jacobi said...

Sorry Father, to be so late with this but,

"A spokesman said: "The flight went really well and the only issue was when it landed."

(airship! something many a pilot has thought!)

Hans Georg Lundahl said...

"I have never noticed any analogous changes in the use of particles in the Attic Greek of different periods. Have you?"

I think nun de rules all through the ages. I also think, no one was ever corrected as "monotone" for nun de, and so no one was ashamed of it.

I think "well ... er ..." has been lampooned and therefore been replaced by a substitute, "so", and when "so" shall be too lampooned (if so), something else will occur.

Have you noted the beginning of "Book of Lost Tales"? Tolkien used "now" at the beginning of each paragraph, obviously for "nun de" ... and it grates the ear when Adam Tolkien translates it to "maintenant" instead of to "or" (which is how nun de in syllogisms is translated, where it doesn't carry any real temporal meaning). As I wrote about after reading that translated begnning.