Thursday, 23 June 2011

So... Okay...

So, why is it that people on the radio and TV have taken to prefacing their answers with the word 'So'? It's quite a recent phenomenon - I seem to remember Appleyard, in his blogging days, noting it - and at first it was, I'm pretty sure, confined to politicians. Now everyone's at it. I can see the attraction for politicians, as it gives the (entirely misleading) impression that the answer given follows logically and seamlessly from something before. Presumably 'experts' in other fields feel that the 'So' suggest some kind of unassailable authority... On this morning's In Our Time (Melv and his guests were talking Malthus), one of the assembled experts was firmly of the 'So' school, unable to answer a question without a preliminary 'So' - while another was equally firmly of the 'Okay' school. Using the 'Okay' preface, I suppose, suggests that you saw that question coming and have your answer ready and waiting. The blizzard of 'So's and 'Okay's was irritating and distracting. What's wrong with 'Well', an honest meaningless word that buys you a little time without suggesting some kind of phoney omniscience? So maybe that's precisely what's wrong with it.


  1. It has the tang of brevity about it, business like, see. Infinitely preferable to the Blair inspired "what's important is", a suitable response being "oh no it isn't"

  2. In North America, among the youth, the first thing out of mouths now is "I mean..." before they give a first sentence that they would then qualify with an "I mean..."

    It's just another bit of verbal dandruff. It will pass, but not soon enough.

    When nobody now is really listening to anybody else, only waiting for the other person to stop talking so they can talk, real words don't matter. It's just "picking fleas" sounds. Not conversation or imparting of thoughts to be answered intelligently.

    It's all part of the general dumbing down of the world.
    And it's gonna get worse.

  3. As another with respect for the conventions of language, I feel your hurt: but one must move forward. This is both with the needs of the times and with the acceptance that language is a living (hence changing) entity. But that things should not change too fast; nor without some modest chance of benefit.

    Nevertheless, I give you these thoughts in support, and in challenge.

    I work (sometimes) in the field of automatic speech recognition (ie human speech transcribed by machine). Some 25+ years ago, I was considering following another English colleague to Canada, there better to pursue such work. He had a 'complaint' on the periphery of our field, that the Canadian government was just then specifying for its civil servants (in addition to being at least somewhat bilingual) how they should answer the telephone: IIRC, first with their name and then with a cheery greeting (eg good morning). My friend and co-researcher argued (quite correctly) that this was the wrong way round. One should first give the greeting, to allow the listener to adjust to the channel characteristics and (at least in Canada) the language you started off speaking. Only then should come the less obvious (in technological terms higher entropy) statement of one's name.

    Likewise, in the modern world of panel discussions on radio and TV, there is a need to capture the audience (or perhaps just one's co-panellists). Thus, a meaningless short utterance is called for. It can be interrupted without loss to the audience, etc.

    Of course, "well" is pretty much as fine as is "so", or is even "OK". But perhaps there is a hint of dual purpose here: "so" might indicates a furtherance of the discussion, answering what immediately precedes without necessarily agreeing with it; "OK" might indicate a greater sense of agreement with what precedes; "well" might indicate surprise at what precedes, or might just be an introduction proposing to ignore it. The interpretation depends, in the actuality, on who is speaking: some of us are more precise in our language than others; some love the (plausibly deniable) hidden meaning; other just have a bit of uncontrollable loose activity.

    Recently (at a stretch on the meaning of that too), we have several other changes, some perhaps of greater profundity - but not (i).

    (i) "I'm good." This, as distinct from "I'm good!" We used to say "I'm fine" as the courteous but knee-jerk response to the equally courteous but knee-jerk "How are you? On this, have we really lost anything? It's arguable, but (having raised the question) I have other things to do.

    (ii) "Liberal". Goddamn our cousins across the Atlantic: why do they have not only to waste a perfectly good word, but pretty much reverse its meaning. Are there any others, since we did that to "nice"? Oh yes: "prudent", "investment", "education", "us" (as in imminent threat to us), "human rights", even "terrorist". Well, OK, so: how about any not brought to common use by New Labour or other socialists and their fellow travellers.

    (iii) "Maths". For some, meaning no more than arithmetic.

    (iv) "Scientists say", "economists say", "doctors say", and so on. Well, if you read that, them saying the exact opposite would also be true. In fact I'm not even sure that journalese requires truth in the plural: a single scientist, economist or doctor would, surely, nowadays well suffice!

    (iv) "Statistical analysis shows", well I think it shows that I surrender my language to the vagaries of fortune, because there are more important things going on.

    Which brings me to "decline and fall": redefined as the historically acknowledged consequence of continuous or frequently repetitive "losing of one's sense of proportion" on too many things by too many people.

    Best regards