I’ve been monitoring the growth of ‘so’ for a few months now. You know the one I mean: the ‘so’ that has leapt from being a conjunction to stand irritatingly at the start of our sentences. ‘So’: the new ‘um’.
But an epiphany occurred the other day. We were a family group of ten, enjoying a significant birthday in one of the best restaurants in the land. The conversation was intelligent, relaxed and varied. Three twenty-somethings were ‘so’-ing predictably; but only when my sister-in-law’s brother – a GP, like me in his middle-aged prime – started to ‘so’ did I take note. Unlike ‘like’ (as in “Is this toilet, like, free?”), this linguistic virus seems to have crossed the generational barrier.
What’s going on?
The curmudgeons, as usual, have little to offer by way of serious explanation. John Rentoul, quizzed by John ‘Today’ Humphreys in 2011, dismissed the phenomenon as just another ‘idiocy’ like ‘going forward’. He did sensibly point out that the word seeks to grab our attention; and his notion that the word implies membership of a private club with shared knowledge is intriguing.
Oliver James, in The Guardian, thinks that “all this So-ing may be a symptom of broader trends.” Invoking Orwell on the importance of language in public life, James suggests that ‘so’ is the new ‘look’ – notoriously deployed by Blair and Cameron in media interviews to signal “a rehearsed manipulation of the truth”. At a time when we’re all, apparently, seeking to “increase the value of our personal brand,” he says, “’so’ has become a way for a person to begin delivery of a packaged account of themselves.”
This idea of prefabricated deception is picked up by the disciplinarians. Typical is Hunter Thurman in Fast Company. ‘So’, he warns us, undermines our credibility in business conversations by announcing: “here comes the rehearsed part of my discussion.” It also demonstrates “that you’re not as comfortable with your story as you think you are.” Drop the ‘so’, orders Thurman: “you’ll appear much more confident.” Deception upon deception, it seems.
Can the linguists help? Maybe, if we’re prepared to tolerate a little heavy jargon. Bruce Fraser, Professor of Linguistics and Education at Boston University, explains that ‘so’ functions as a ‘discourse marker’: it indicates the relevance of a new remark to previous remarks. According to Galina Bolden, Associate Professor of Communication at Rutgers, ‘so’ “implements incipient actions”: if we want to say something not immediately related to the preceding conversation, we throw in a ‘so’. Emailing Anand Giridharadas for his thoughtful article on the subject, she also says that ‘so’ “suggests that we are concerned with displaying interest for others.”
Now we’re getting somewhere. ‘So’ reinforces the relationships underlying our conversations: between our ideas, and between us. Which, if you think about it, figures. Consider: the ‘so’ we’re pondering is a conjunction. We might expect ‘so’ to make connections. And so we find.
For decades, we’ve lived comfortably with ‘so’ as a topic-changing discourse marker to preface a question. (“So how was the lunch on Sunday?”). Now we’re extending that use to statements, usually in answer to questions. We might say ‘well’, or ‘you know’; but increasingly we choose ‘so’.
There may be a clue in the word’s dictionary definitions: it means ‘consequently’ in an explanation, and ‘therefore’ in an argument. ‘So’ offers more cognitive heft than ‘well’.
All of which fits the marker’s supposed origins. Michael Lewis, in The New New Thing, locates its birthplace among the geeks of Silicon Valley. Giridharadas agrees, suggesting that ‘so’ creates a sense of ‘algorithmic certitude’ in technical explanations. ‘So’, he thinks, indicates the kind of thinking that appeals to problem-solvers: “conversation as a logical, unidirectional process.” He points out that many of those techies would be using English as a second language; in immigrant-filled tech firms, ‘so’ “democratized talk by replacing a world of possible transitions with a catchall.”
It’s the double role that’s significant. The new ‘so’ helped these people explain more clearly and bound them into a new community of interest.
‘So’ seems to have spread from software to the wider academic community. (You certainly hear it a lot on Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time). And now we’re all at it: perhaps, in a data-driven society, we all feel the need to explain more. Maybe ‘so’ tells the other person: “I’ve heard your question accurately and I’m concerned to answer it well. And, although I may be about to display deeper or more detailed knowledge than you possess, I still value this conversation.”
Quite a lot for a two-letter word to carry.
But something even deeper may be going on. We’ve used ‘so’, for years, to start a joke. (“So there are these two blokes in the pub...”) Attention-grabber; subject-changer; interest-whetter. It’s the narrative ‘so’, a shorthand ‘once upon a time’. When Seamus Heaney came to translate the first line of Beowulf, he was confronted with hwæt: a word usually rendered as ‘lo’ or ‘hark’. Heaney needed to find his own voice, and he discovered it in his “big-voiced” Irish relatives: in their idiom, he writes, “‘so’ operates as an expression that obliterates all previous discourse and narrative, and at the same time functions as an exclamation calling for immediate attention.” His version begins:
So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kinds who ruled them had courage and greatness.
Maybe ‘so’ carries some of that weight in more prosaic conversation. It fulfils the need for something more comforting than a technical explanation: something with the aura of a story.
Of course, our conversations might improve if we removed this irritant. But we might self-censor more easily if we understood the source of the infection. As modern conversations threaten to splinter, perhaps we’re using ‘so’ to weave them into a tighter web. Listen, we say; you need to hear this. You’ll like this. And I’m saying it just for you.