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So, so?
March 31, 2011 5:47 AM   Subscribe

So, is the use of 'so' as an interjection to begin a sentence (see also: 'well', 'listen', 'hear ye!') a recent coinage? If so, what are its origins?

'So' is mainstream enough now that Seamus Heaney uses it to translate the opening 'Hwaet' of Beowulf. His translation was published in 2000. This article suggests that the origins of 'so' as an interjection lie with Silicon Valley and Microsoft, but many commenters disagree in interesting ways.

What's the real story? Is there any corpus evidence or more authoritative research?
posted by unSane to Writing & Language (22 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Do you want anecdotes? I noticed a sudden sharp rise in its usage amongst physicians in the midwest in 2004. It really seemed novel at the time, it grabbed my ear every single time for about six months.
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 6:04 AM on March 31, 2011

So here's a similar question you might find interesting.
posted by Metroid Baby at 6:06 AM on March 31, 2011

Thanks. Another previous here, but no knockout blows landed yet...
posted by unSane at 6:13 AM on March 31, 2011

to my reading, the Beowulf "so" is a different kind of "so" than the "Interjection to begin a sentence." As you point out, the latter "so" (e.g., "So, the store was closed.") could easily be replaced by "well" or other similar words. But in Beowulf, the "So" seems to be a connector. You'll notice one of the other translations for that passage uses the word "Then" for the same role. I'm sure that the distinction between the two usages is blurry, but the interjectional/introductory "so" can be a new development while the causal/temporal "so" as a way to begin a sentence need not be.
posted by milestogo at 6:13 AM on March 31, 2011

The Beowulf 'so' (Heaney's anyway) is the first word of the poem so can hardly be a connector.

I'm less interested in the correctness of 'so' as a translation for 'hwaet' and more interested in the fact that it was a common enough usage for Heaney to translate it that way in 2000.

If you dive into Metroid's link and in particular Koeselitz's answers there's some more detail on this but it's not really on point for my question.
posted by unSane at 6:16 AM on March 31, 2011

I don't think that's the opening lines of Beowulf. Look here and Ctrl+F for some of the words. It's about 1/6 of the way in.
posted by milestogo at 6:22 AM on March 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh! I see you were referring to something in the linked article rather than Heany's "so" from the main examples on the page. Sorry for the confusion.
posted by milestogo at 6:24 AM on March 31, 2011

From the OED:
so, adv. and conj.
5. In various elliptic uses:
c. As an introductory particle. Also, so, so.
This and the following two uses are common in Shakespeare's plays.Seems to be similar to the usage pattern you're asking about.
posted by Nomyte at 6:25 AM on March 31, 2011

It is similar to the French usage of the word donc - therefore - which has been around in France for quite some time, much longer than it's been in Silicon Valley (this is mentioned in comment 36 of the linked article). Ask someone a question in France - a bank teller, the baker - and you get a sentence beginning with donc. I don't hear this in '60s French films, so I suspect it became widespread quite a bit after that.
posted by jet_silver at 6:27 AM on March 31, 2011

This article places its initial proliferation in the world of science; one informant calls it "the so virus." That article is linked to a CBC radio segment about the use of "so" (scroll down). Anand's piece was discussed on BoingBoing. In this NYT piece on 2009 buzzwords, Grant Barrett asserts:
Sentence-initial “so” has had a long run as a discourse marker in English. I’ve had a number of people swear to me that it’s more common than it used to be, but the data show it isn’t. I think some folks are just paying more attention as they grow older and wiser, so it only seems like they’re hearing it more.
I think it's important to make a distinction, though. "So," like "and" or "but," has been used for a long time to start a sentence, even though there have been prohibitions on that usage from editors and grammarians. But (see I just did it) what is unique about the newer usage of "so" is that it's used at the very, very beginning of the story, not as a continuer, the way it's used in the excerpt linked in the post. It doesn't seem that Heaney used "so" as the very first word of the epic, did he? (Can't find it online.) I did find where he said:
A simple sentence such as ‘We cut the corn today’ took on immense dignity when one of the Scullions spoke it. They had a kind of Native American solemnity of utterance, as if they were announcing verdicts rather than making small talk. And when I came to ask myself how I wanted Beowulf to sound in my version, I realized I wanted it to be speakable by one of those relatives. I therefore tried to frame the famous opening lines in cadences that would have suited their voices, but that still echoed with the sound and sense of the Anglo-Saxon...
posted by Miko at 6:32 AM on March 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

In Jonathan Lethem's Chronic City, I noticed a character was described as starting a conversation with "So, ..." as if he were merely continuing from before. This struck me because I noticed that I often start conversations that way and as far as I am aware, I always did (though it might not be true.) Chronic City is published in 2009, though the discussions in question happened some years earlier, yet, this verbal tic was considered unique enough (if I may so modify "unique") to be remarked upon.
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:37 AM on March 31, 2011

> If you dive into Metroid's link and in particular Koeselitz's answers there's some more detail on this but it's not really on point for my question.

I don't understand what you're looking for. Koeselitz's answer was (as far as I can see) completely on point, as is Nomyte's in this thread. It's a very old usage that has apparently become more popular recently, or at least a number of people seem to have suffered the recency illusion concerning it recently. I'm sorry all you people who find it annoying are annoyed by it, but it's perfectly normal English and I can only suggest that you desensitize yourselves and move on.
posted by languagehat at 6:53 AM on March 31, 2011 [10 favorites]

I don't know if this will help you at all. But I used to be a professional storyteller, back in the late 80s to mid 90s. "So" was a very common way to start a story; I did it a lot and I heard other people do it. It seemed like it signified casualness, and was a gesture that meant something like, "I'm kind of starting this story as if we were having a conversation and I was introducing a new topic." Heaney using it in Beowulf always struck me as that same kind of oral storytelling thing. It seemed back then like a very accepted usage in casual conversation; it didn't seem unusual to me and I felt like I'd seen it in casual speech being rendered in literature from all eras.
posted by not that girl at 7:10 AM on March 31, 2011 [3 favorites]

Just to add a footnote to languagehat's post, the Recency Illusion refers to observations of linguistic changes that appear to have taken root recently, but are actually centuries old. The original post on language log shows one example, but there are countless more. The illusion is certainly at work here.

And to add something about the whole Beowulf thing, my point in the previous article was not how to correctly translate hwaet (as many here have picked up on), but more that Heaney learned this when he was young from his father and older relatives. So the date of the translation is not really relevant; Heaney's usage is much older, and the usage in general is likely far older than him.
posted by kiltedtaco at 7:17 AM on March 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oops, first link was supposed to go to wikipedia.
posted by kiltedtaco at 7:18 AM on March 31, 2011

Koeselitz's answer was (as far as I can see) completely on point, as is Nomyte's in this thread.

K's answer dealt with adverbial uses of so, plus some guesses as to how it might migrate to the beginning of a sentence. His etymology link suggested it was of Yiddish origin but without examples.

Nomyte's links are very helpful.

I'm not annoyed by it at all -- I've always assumed it was a 'perfectly normal English' but was hoping for more evidence than 'because I say so'. I asked the question because a friend of mine seemed to think it was a recent coinage.

There is only one annoyed person in this thread as far as I can tell.
posted by unSane at 7:30 AM on March 31, 2011

@jet_silver: What about the French alors? That seems, to me, to have been popular for a longer time.
posted by wackybrit at 7:57 AM on March 31, 2011

posted by John Cohen at 8:24 AM on March 31, 2011

So I had a look at Evelyn Waugh's letters to Diana Cooper, and here are a few examples:

Darling Diana
So I have come back and now I am in Bath because after all that forest it is better to be in good architecture.
(May 1933)

Darling Diana
so the war has begun & all more cheerful except the americans who have been swaggering about since we came here armed to teeth & talking like E Hemingway tough guys lumber jacks hunting bear canoes rockies all that well these americans are scared blue on account of they think to be blown up and W R Hearsts chaps have bought a great mansion next door wop legation and have a lorry full of the sort of food americans eat ready with sleeping chauffeur.
(August 1935)

Darling Diana
So now the pope says to come to Rome & perhaps he'll divorce me, so that is the happy end of a very happy return journey.
(January 1936)

So Waugh's prewar letters often begin 'So ..' or 'Well ..' and it's clearly part of the private diction that he adopted with his closest friends. There's a childlike aspect to it which is obviously part of the joke (it's a deliberate flouting of the rules of 'good' English) but the main purpose seems to be to create a kind of conversational intimacy on paper, as if Waugh had just picked up the telephone and plunged straight into the stream of conversation without pausing for breath. Waugh (born 1903) belonged to the first generation for whom the telephone was a normal everyday form of communication, and I'm sure that has something to do with it. So does that help to answer your question?
posted by verstegan at 8:25 AM on March 31, 2011 [3 favorites]

unSane: The Beowulf 'so' (Heaney's anyway) is the first word of the poem so can hardly be a connector.

Pound's Canto I begins with a conjunction:
And then went down to the ship,
Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea, and
We set up mast and sail on that swart ship,
Bore sheep aboard her, and our bodies also
Heavy with weeping, and winds from sternward
Bore us onward with bellying canvas,
Crice's this craft, the trim-coifed goddess.
posted by cobra libre at 2:20 PM on March 31, 2011

> I'm not annoyed by it at all

I wasn't addressing you; sorry if it seemed that way. A lot of people in the two previous threads made a point of saying how awful they thought it was, and I was addressing anyone who felt that way. (And I'm not annoyed either, if I'm the one you were referring to at the end.)
posted by languagehat at 2:21 PM on March 31, 2011

I blog like this, but i think i might have got it from that Beowulf translation.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 11:32 PM on March 31, 2011

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