Saturday, December 3, 2011

So What?

So What?
Image by soartsyithurts via Flickr

SO this is about the word "so."

There, I did it. And if you speak English for work or pleasure, there is a fair chance that you've done it, too.

"So" may be the new "well," "um," "oh" and "like." No longer content to lurk in the middle of sentences, it has jumped to the beginning, where it can portend many things: transition, certitude, logic, attentiveness, a major insight.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, late last year: "So it's not only because we believe that universal values support human rights being recognized and respected, but we think that it's in the best interest for economic growth and political stability. So we believe that."

A dispatch on National Public Radio last month, in which a quarter of the sentences began with "so": "So it's, I think, the fifth largest in the nation. So, but now that's the population in general. So there are sort of two, there are two things that are circumstantial..."

A quotation in a report last month from Channel NewsAsia, based in Singapore: "So what we're doing is  -  elephants have had these migratory routes, basically like islands connecting parks between each other; they've got nowhere to move and people have encroached on them.

"So we negotiate with the people to move from the land. So what we do, we buy the land, build them houses off the corridors and give them exactly the same amount of arable land back..."

One can dredge up ancient instances of "so" as a sentence starter. In his 14th-century poem "Troilus and Criseyde," Chaucer launched a verse with, "So on a day he leyde him doun to slepe. ..." But for most of its life, "so" has principally been a conjunction, an intensifier and an adverb.

What is new is its status as the favored introduction to thoughts, its encroachment on the territory of "well," "oh," "um" and their ilk.

So it is widely believed that the recent ascendancy of "so" began in Silicon Valley. The journalist Michael Lewis picked it up when researching his 1999 book "The New New Thing": "When a computer programmer answers a question," he wrote, "he often begins with the word 'so.' " Microsoft employees have long argued that the "so" boom began with them.

In the software world, it was a tic that made sense. In immigrant-filled technology firms, it democratized talk by replacing a world of possible transitions with a catchall. And "so" suggested a kind of thinking that appealed to problem-solving software types: conversation as a logical, unidirectional process  -  if this, then that.

This logical tinge to "so" has followed it out of software. Compared to "well" and "um," starting a sentence with "so" uses the whiff of logic to relay authority. Whereas "well" vacillates, "so" declaims. {Read on}

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