Commentary: Why is the Word “So” So Ubiquitous?

Print Share on LinkedIn Comments More
photo by john branch

So, have you noticed lately that many people are starting sentences with the word “so?” So, why is this? So, I don’t know, but the question gives me the chance to ask how and why useless words and speech patterns regularly creep into our everyday vocabulary without us noticing.

I first became aware of the use of useless words when I read a piece by David Ogilvy, the best advertising copywriter ever. He said, “Never use the word ‘basically.’ It is a basically useless word.”

At that time, I was using the word “basically” a lot. So I stopped.

Wait, that was a useful way to use the word “so.”

Maybe I’m super sensitive to the word “so” because in high school my buddies called me “Soso,” instead of Sosa. I basically hated that.

In 2000, my wife and I lived in Cambridge, Mass. The word “actually” was in vogue. It seemed like most all Ivy League students we ran into were using the word “actually” in their sentences the way people use the word “so” today. In the morning, I would greet the intern at my office with the customary, “Good morning, how are you?” Her response? “Actually, pretty good.” Funny how we become slaves to useless or meaningless chatter. I could have greeted her with, “Good morning.” She could have responded with “Good morning,” and we would have been done. But no, we go on using basically useless words and actually useless phrases in the name of politeness or fashion.

Here’s another one: “totally.” It’s totally useless. I totally miss you. I totally believe you. It’s totally cool. Totally unnecessary. Totally was followed by its equally useless twin, “seriously.” I seriously miss you. I seriously believe you. It’s seriously cool. Seriously, it’s a good thing those two came and went in record time.

How about “like?” Remember “like?” Useless. Ten years ago, everybody liked “like.” It was used to begin a sentence like, “Like, what do you want to do?” It was used in the middle of sentences like, “What do you, like, want to do?” It was used near the end of sentences like, “What do you want to, like, do?” That one hung on so long, I thought I was going to, like, die.

Hillary Clinton fancies the phrase, “you know.” She uses “you know” when she wants to seem more, you know, believable. “I used just one cell phone for convenience, you know.” Or, “Bill and I were, you know, dead broke after leaving the White House.” She sprinkles the “you knows” in her interviews so often, one wonders if she’s trying too hard to sound like, you know, an ordinary person.

Donald Trump’s overuse of the word “amazing” is amazing. “This has been an amazing day for me. My running mate is pretty amazing. My children are all amazing people. My wife is amazing. I’m an amazing businessman. This is an amazing crowd. My small hands are amazing.” The senseless overuse of any word can render it meaningless, no matter how amazing it is.

Something else that happens without us noticing is the way one common phrase suddenly replaces another. The response to “Thank you” had always been “You’re welcome.” Now, the usual response is “No problem,” unless you’re at a Ritz Carlton, where “My pleasure” is preferred.

I have a problem with “no problem.” Mostly because saying “Thank you” does not imply there was ever a problem in the first place.

While I chafe every time I hear a young person reply with “no problem,” I am thankful they’ve quit using the dreaded word “whatever,” whatever that meant.

One last question: Why has “I’m not sure” replaced “I don’t know?” I guess “I’m not sure” sounds smarter than “I don’t know.” And why do kids, when ordering at a restaurant say, “Can I have a bean and cheese?” instead of “I’ll have a bean and cheese.” And why do they never say taco?

A few years ago, one of my granddaughters was on the phone with a girlfriend. The conversation went something like this: “So I go, no way, right? And she goes, whatever, right? And I go, totally! And she goes, awesome, right? So I go, so totally!” They were actually communicating.

My wife Kathy edits everything I write. She wants to make sure I sound halfway smart. I asked her what she thought of this piece. Her response? “It’s so-so.”


Top image: Cartoon by John Branch. 

Related Stories:

Commentary: In Defense of Beige

Portraits by Lionel: Sosa Returns to the Canvas

Exhibit to Focus on Power of Art in Healing Hearts

Second Saturday Lifts Up Local, Latino Art

8 thoughts on “Commentary: Why is the Word “So” So Ubiquitous?

  1. So, that was totally amazing and basically on point. Actually, I, like, wish I had written that, seriously. Oh, did I hear a “thank you”? No problem. But I will take a potato, egg and bacon. Seriously, that really was awesome. Loved it!

  2. Guilty of all that conversational wordage. For me it is uhmm. Uhmm makes me confused. Were you not sure what you wanted to say? Did you change your mind sometime after the thought left your brain and came out your mouth? Uhmm.

  3. Well, look Lionel as someone so knowledgeable in language, you could have added the ubiquitous “look” used by many politicians before stating their position . I think it gives them a second or so to consider what they are going to say .

    Thanks for the comment on “no problem”, look, I actually don’t find that amazing !

  4. I’m busy dodging the trick-you-to-agree use of “Right?” buried in the middle of a sentence: “We can’t get there from here, right? so, let’s not go at all…” You get it, right?

  5. My peeve phrase: “On a regular basis.” Why use four words just to say “regularly”? I think it’s a remnant of “basically” overuse.
    And thank you, thank you, thank you for pointing out that “no problem” is not a valid response to anything except “Is this a problem for you?”
    When I hear someone (usually someone 40 years younger than I) mumble “noproblem” (yes, as one word) or “not a problem” to my “thank you” for doing something they’re supposed to do anyway on the job, I’d like to say, “You’re right, dude/dudette, doing your job should definitely not be a problem.”
    Now don’t get me started on SA drivers….

  6. Here’s another fun one for you: look how often “I feel like” has replaced “I think,” and consider the ramifications of that shift.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *