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“So” Gets Repurposed

Deconstructing a new linguistic trend.

By Uncategorized

So, has anyone noticed that the word “so” has become the new “um” or “well.” Well, there’s a reason for that. Language is always evolving. Slang changes constantly, and words change in meaning over time. That’s the definition of language, and the more English changes, the better, I think.

Partly because English speakers have been willing to steal countless words and phrases from other tongues, the language has multiple ways to say almost exactly the same thing. Almost. Boredom is still not the same as ennui. The subtleties and flexibility English affords is useful and fun, that is, unless you’re trying to learn it.

But every now and then, a linguistic trend comes about that strikes a nerve. It seems a little wrong in some way, and you’re not sure how. Like when up-talking was still new. You understood your friends’ declarative sentences, but you couldn’t ignore that they sounded like questions. Beginning a sentence with “so” has a similarly unpleasant odor, but why?

New York Times columnist Anand Giridharadas traces this usage of “so” in a 2010 piece, placing its origins in Silicon Valley. Journalist Michael Lewis noted way back in 1999 in his book “The New New Thing” that computer programmers answer questions by starting with the word “so.” Giridharadas follows what is a fascinating transformation in tech firms filled with immigrant engineers. “It democratized talk by replacing a world of possible transitions with a catchall.”

By association, he argues, beginning a sentence with the word “so” implies a certain problem-solving ability, a logic that flows from software engineering. “If this, then that,” Giridharadas writes. Is this hint of authority what rings so flatulent when my professors answer questions? When I ask my sister about her latest business trip (or pay any attention to my own speech, for that matter), that tiny bit of self-indulgent condescension masquerading as just another intro will always remind me that “so” just isn’t “well.”

Troy Pieper is a Master of Arts candidate in Arts Journalism at SAIC.

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