So far, so bad.
I found myself looking up the origin of ‘curmudgeon’ last week. Defined as ‘bad-tempered, difficult, or cantankerous’, its components once meant, more or less, ‘a growling grimacer’. This last description sums up almost exactly my facial expression when I hear a language tic of the moment that has knocked ‘going forward’ off the top of my bugbear list: and that is the prefacing of every response to a question with ‘So’.
As a phenomenon it’s far from new. The writer Mark Mason asked me what I thought about it years ago. To my shame I responded that, whilst I’d heard it that very afternoon and had found it hugely irritating, it struck me more as a fairly sporadic tendency rather than anything on the increase. Sorry Mark, I was wrong.
The interview I’d heard that afternoon was on Five Live’s Drive programme, in which the presenter Peter Allen was interviewing a spokesperson from BT on their plans for rolling out high-speed broadband. “What will actually happen?”, Allen asked. ‘So, what will happen is that we’re either going to be taking fibre to their home. . . [etc]’. Allen put a second question: ‘And how expensive is it going to be?’. “So, we’ve already committed 2.5 billion pounds. . . ’. And so it went on. What jarred with me also irked dozens of other listeners, who texted the programme in droves to express their irritation.
Two years on, everyone’s now at it: politicians, PR spokespeople, pop stars. Anyone, in fact, can be infected. ‘So, just who really is Ed Miliband?’, the Telegraph asked last week, following the Labour leader’s conference speech in which he himself delivered such statements as ‘So, in education there really is a choice of two futures’. The question is why we do it.
One theory is that we use ‘so’ in an unconscious play for time, as a filler that fulfills the same function as ‘um’, ‘er’, or ‘ah’. Linguistic cushions like these aren’t all bad: I remember a study that compared a test group’s comprehension of two separate audio recordings, one peppered with ‘ah’s and ‘um’s, and one not. The results were surprising, suggesting that verbal white noise actually helps the listener because it allows more time to process what’s being said. Does ‘so’ operate in the same way? Personally, I think not.
Having now encountered its use many times, my own conclusion is that the all-prefacing ‘so’ is simply a habit, and one that has spread because, at some level, it sounds cool and confident. Microsoft employees claim it started with their computer programmers as a means of conveying logic and algorithmic certainty. They have a point: as Anand Girdiharadas of the New York Times put it, “While ‘well’ vacillates, ‘so’ declaims’.
‘So’ then is the modern equivalent of Tony Blair’s ‘Look’: a simple but masterly opening that immediately convinced the listener that he was trustworthy and, most of all, entirely right. One emphatic and judiciously placed ‘so’ does the same; it’s when it keeps on coming that everything unravels. It’s a little like the business jargon we love to hate; to some degree, such tropes as ‘opening the kimono’ or ‘kitchen-sinking the figures’ may prove a useful shorthand and identity marker among those in the know. Used indiscriminately, however, and to the wrong person, it is simply annoying.
Mark Mason discovered a hilarious example of revenge exacted by one journalist when his interviewee gave him a barrage of ‘so’s. The journalist decided to fight fire with fire, starting every single one of his questions with ‘Anyway’. By the fifth one, his interviewee was so flummoxed that a putative ‘so’ became a whimpered ‘Well. . .’.
I’m hoping that this particular bugbear day, unlike its groundhog equivalent, doesn’t last very long. The next time I hear anyone indulging in excessive so-ing I will strongly resist doing the same. Going forward, I can only hope this is one trend that loses its thread.