So, tell me about so
September 17, 2008 8:34 AM   Subscribe

So, awhile back I noticed a lot of people beginning a lot of their sentences with the word so. Suddenly, I was doing the same. Does anyone know if this has a specific origin in the culture? A character in a TV show, maybe?
posted by partner to Society & Culture (54 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I know, right?

(That's a serious answer, and an example of another verbal tendency I've been hearing a lot lately. As with yours, I'm not sure the source is very traceable - it just seems to be something that caught on and unfortunately stuck. Like, you know, overuse of the word "like.")
posted by allkindsoftime at 8:44 AM on September 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

I can't give you a source, but I realized recently that I use it too much. It's become the new "like", to me, and I absolutelu hate it. It's almost as if it's to preface everything with, "get ready, here it comes!", but I can't quite figure out why I feel the need to brace people.
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 8:46 AM on September 17, 2008

And with one mis-stroke, I have coined "abso-looloo". Your welcome.
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 8:48 AM on September 17, 2008 [6 favorites]

So I can't even parse my own misspellings, apparently.
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 8:48 AM on September 17, 2008

It's infected me too - and my writing, which is worse. I'm on guard for it now. I don't have time to look, but I Googled "starting a sentence with 'so'" and clearly we're not alone. Maybe something in there will help pinpoint an origin.

I kind of wanted to point the finger at Seinfeld, but I don't really think that's it. It's more recent. But not too recent - I've seen it on blogs, especially, for at least 4-5 years.
posted by Miko at 8:50 AM on September 17, 2008

It at least goes back to Andrew Dice Clay's HBO special when he told his "standing in line at the bank" story.
posted by bondcliff at 8:55 AM on September 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

I've heard blame laid on Angela Chase's monologues from "My So-Called Life." I doubt if she started the trend, but I know that her inflections permeated my formative years, and she likely informed the manner in which much of my generation now speaks.
posted by Help, I can't stop talking! at 9:00 AM on September 17, 2008

Response by poster: Bondcliff, what is the sentence that Dice Clay used?
posted by partner at 9:00 AM on September 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

This may be an obscure reference, but I've seen thoughts on "So" in Heaney's translation of Beowulf when he's discussing how to translate the first word of the poem, "Hwaet" ("About the translation", page xxi):
"But in Hiberno-English Scullionspeak, the idiom 'so' came naturally to the rescue, because in that idiom 'so' as an expression which obliterates all previous discourse and narrative, and at the same time functions as an exclamation calling for immediate attention."
Heaney refers to its usage as sort of sentence-introduction by his older (Irish) relatives, so I don't think it's by any means modern. Not that this is by any means a definitive answer; I don't think it's an answer at all. But I would caution you against looking for a source like "so and so in this TV show, in 1992, episode twelve". It's an complex word with a much larger history.
posted by kiltedtaco at 9:03 AM on September 17, 2008 [12 favorites]

I was trying to avoid it, this being a family website I was thinking of the children, but if I recall, after the applause died down and he did the “light the cigarette” shtick, he opened with “So I got my tongue up this chick’s ass…”
posted by bondcliff at 9:03 AM on September 17, 2008

Response by poster: Right, kiltedtaco. That's an interesting statement by Heaney. It shows that there can be a function to the use of so at the beginning of a sentence.
posted by partner at 9:12 AM on September 17, 2008

So I says to Mabel, I says...

I seem to remember coming across the "so" at the beginning of a sentence/story when I was younger, and at that time it seemed antiquated, like "going steady" or something. I don't think it's new, but maybe it's gaining in popularity now.

btw i herd u liek mudkips?
posted by Metroid Baby at 9:21 AM on September 17, 2008


i've been noticing this in CBC interviews, especially with academics from around north america. nobody, to my recollection, was doing it more than about a year ago.

it drives me utterly and completely bonkers, and i need this pestilence to pass, like, yesterday.
posted by klanawa at 9:24 AM on September 17, 2008

I recall, very clearly, being surprised and annoyed by this habit among my co-workers in either 1997 or 1998.

So, today, I use it myself.
posted by devbrain at 9:28 AM on September 17, 2008

This came up in conversation not too long ago, we all recognized it as having been around for a while, but one theory put forth was that it was getting more use on the Sopranos. This seemed as reasonable to any of us as anything, but we couldn't come up with anything specific that was better.
posted by pupdog at 9:30 AM on September 17, 2008

I think using 'so' is equivalent to placing 'um' strategically throughout sentence constructions, which is something I find distracting...ummm...I find it...ummm...annoying when people continually place these constructions in their speech.

I think 'so' and 'um' are ways of gaining time to process a sentence structure before speaking. A speaker charges ahead without really mapping out the words and information to be relayed and is forced to use a grammatical pacing trick to do some rehashing of the phrase.

So, um, that's my two cents. Your mileage may vary.
posted by diode at 9:38 AM on September 17, 2008

It's common to hear "Sew buttons" as a response when someone starts a sentence with "So" and pauses too long...
posted by jozxyqk at 9:40 AM on September 17, 2008

I vow to never again start another sentence with so.
posted by Keith Talent at 9:49 AM on September 17, 2008

I know that Joe Pesci's character in Goodfellas uses the "So..." preamble in his telling of a story. I think that scene is set in the early 1970's.
posted by LouMac at 9:49 AM on September 17, 2008

I've been starting my jokes with "ok, so" for twenty years, or so I've been told by my folks.
posted by adamdschneider at 9:55 AM on September 17, 2008

I think there's a right and a wrong way to use it. The correct usage is used in lieu of "and thus.." or "as a result..".

So, for instance, saying "So... I'm going to the store, do you want to come with me?" is probably what you're referring to. It's unnecessary and is almost a "can I have your attention, I'm about to say something to you".

The correct way (imho) is more like "My car's alternator is broken. So I guess we're not going to the store after all."

I am not an English teacher (or an English major, for that matter) so I could totally be off base... that's just my interpretation. I'm quite guilty of using the incorrect form, often as I walk into a room to address someone. (enters room) "So, guess what I just heard on the news.."
posted by MarkLark at 9:59 AM on September 17, 2008

I know someone who uses it to mean "I already know this, because of course I am smarter and better than you, but I'm going to state this thing, which I already know, and pretend I am asking you a question." (Note: the assumption is usually wrong.) cut your hair like that because you're angry at the world?

Annoys the crap out of me. It's right up there with starting sentences with "Well, actually..."
posted by bink at 10:01 AM on September 17, 2008

Re: I know, right?

I'm pretty sure (embarrassingly enough), I got this from Juno:

Mac MacGuff: Paulie Bleeker?
Juno MacGuff: What?
Mac MacGuff: I didn't think he had it in him.
Leah: I know, right?
posted by faunafrailty at 10:14 AM on September 17, 2008

I'm British and I'm sure I've heard this throughout my life. It sounds completely normal to me.
posted by galaksit at 10:16 AM on September 17, 2008

I don't know the origin but the word "so" can mean "therefore" or "then". So, starting sentences with it often makes sense. :)

@devbrain - that actually seems like the correct usage. Or close to it.

"It's unnecessary and is almost a "can I have your attention, I'm about to say something to you"."

Sometimes that is necessary. If you just start talking and the person isn't paying attention, they don't hear the first few words. Especially if that person is your SO who is zoned in on a video game. It sounds nicer to lead off with some blabbering that isn't important than to say "Hey - you - pay attention" to get them to focus. If you're already talking to them the "so" is unnecessary.

@Aquaman - indeed. It's also amazing how quickly these things spead. My dad says "just sayin'" and despite my efforts not to pick that one up, I say it all the time. It's unconscious.
posted by jesirose at 10:18 AM on September 17, 2008

@faunafrailty - While a lot of the slang in that movie was completely made up, that isn't. My friends and I have been saying that for longer than I can remember. They used existing colloquialisms in the movie.
posted by jesirose at 10:20 AM on September 17, 2008

Heaney refers to its usage as sort of sentence-introduction by his older (Irish) relatives, so I don't think it's by any means modern.
That's interesting. I think of the Irish usage of "so" as being at the end of the sentence, not the beginning. "I'm going to the store, so", not "so I'm going to the store." It could just be that as an American, the former construction seems stranger to me and so has made a bigger impression.
posted by craichead at 10:21 AM on September 17, 2008

"I know, right?" - with an annoying lilt on the backend of 'right' - that swept through my former city like a plague a while back.
posted by ian1977 at 10:24 AM on September 17, 2008

My brother claimed that this was a grad school phenomenon, and said that all of his friends (and his sister) started using "So" when they started grad school. I have no idea if he's right or not. I do know that I use it at the beginning of a long explanation -- basically, as a way to introduce background information that the listener may not be familiar with. (In other words, when someone asks, "What exactly does your project entail?", you might think for a while and then start with, "So... you know how [insert basic starting point for explanation]?"
posted by cider at 10:30 AM on September 17, 2008

I've been under the impression that this is a west coast phenomenon, as I heard a lot of it when I was there last year. I brought this up to some colleagues out there and they didn't notice it at all.
posted by SteveInMaine at 10:32 AM on September 17, 2008

I do know that I use it at the beginning of a long explanation -- basically, as a way to introduce background information that the listener may not be familiar with.

I think that's how I use it. I also sometimes use it to remind my listener of pertinent information:

"So remember how I was going to go to the store yesterday? Well, I didn't go, and I have to go now."

posted by craichead at 10:34 AM on September 17, 2008

So, I just read this article, but I can't find it, that talks about the usage of "so" drawing from the increased role technology plays in our lives, and the tendency for engineers to anthropromorphize technological devices, and generally deal with technology in a different context than an everyday person.

So, when they attempt to explain technology to others, "so" is used as a scene-setting device in their language, especially when they deal with people they think are less technically savvy than they are.

"Why doesn't my computer work?"
"So, your computer needs electricity to work, and to get the electricity, it has a power cable..."
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:35 AM on September 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

Summarizing so far, at least three different functions:

"So... I'm going to the store, do you want to come with me?" - where "So" is used like a throat-clearing to announce that you're about to speak. This usage seems most likely a fashion, that is current in. (The Beowulf example also seems to match this usage)
"My car's alternator is broken. So I guess we're not going to the store after all." - where "So" means "therefore" or "as such" etc. A fairly nuts and bolts usage, doesn't seem to have fallen in or out of fashion much.

"So I'm at the store and this guy walks up to me..." - where "So" is a method of indicating that you are using present tense to refer to past events, ie. that you are using first person to tell an anecdote. Definitely seems dated (Goodfellas, Mabel, etc) but making a comeback (Seinfeld etc)
posted by -harlequin- at 10:37 AM on September 17, 2008 [5 favorites]

I didn't hear the "So...." and "I know, right?!" much as a teenager in the eighties, but it was endemic to seemingly everyone under 40 by the early-ninties. I blame Friends and Seinfield, mostly. Both shows draw a lot of meta-attention to these sort of verbal tics, and both were in such perpetual, pervasive syndication almost from the start (acknowledged exaggeration) that it's nearly impossible to avoid significant familiarity with them.

There's a few different variations on the initial "so":

Staccato so = Moving along, abrupt change of subject. Carries the whiff of an implied "whatever."

Short so = Pay attention to what I'm saying right now.

Very long falling-pitch so = Moving along because whatever you just said is stupid/crazy/otherwise needing invalidation.

Medium so = Intentional misappropriation of "so" as a disingenuous bridge to a non-sequitur. See many stand-up comedians for examples.
posted by desuetude at 10:48 AM on September 17, 2008

kiltedtaco: I would caution you against looking for a source like "so and so in this TV show, in 1992, episode twelve". It's an complex word with a much larger history.

I hold that this is the most sensible answer to your question. For example, since I happen to be reading Charles Dickens' Great Expectations, here's a passage from page 250 of the Penguin edition:

At length, it was voted that there was no help for the angry gentleman, and that he must either go in his chance company or remain behind. So, he got into his place, still making complaints, and the keeper got into the place next him, and the convicts hauled themselves up as well as they could, and the convict I had recognized sat behind me with his breath on the hair of my head.

This was written in 1860, many years before television.

languagehat would be the best person to answer the question, as this is actually his game, whereas it's really only my hobby. But in lieu of an answer from him, I'll make a try:

It's an Old English word. See here:

O.E. swa, swæ "in this way," from P.Gmc. *swa (cf. O.S., M.Du., O.H.G. so, O.N. sva, Dan. saa, Swed. sa, O.Fris. sa, Du. zo, Ger. so "so," Goth. swa "as"), from PIE reflexive pronomial stem *s(w)o- (cf. Gk. hos "as," O.Latin suad "so," L. se "himself").

I don't believe it was used this flexibly in the past; in the archaic usage, it seems to have had a precision, almost always occurring as an adverb ("... his character is so constituted..." or adjective ("... this was so carefully managed that"). Now we hardly ever use it as an adverb, and use it often as an adjective that has expanded in what it can cover to the point where it can cover whole sentences. In addition, we use it almost exclusively as an emphatic adjective ("... your mom is so fat that... ").

I think this shift can be explained through a drift that comes from misunderstanding of what the word was meant to signify. If I say he's so foolish that he believes that beer doesn't taste good, I may have meant in the archaic sense that he's foolish in such a way that he believes that beer doesn't taste good, but the meaning seems interchangeable and is easy to understand as he's foolish to such a great extent that he believes that beer doesn't taste good. The ambiguity, and the fact that in nearly all cases both have almost identical meaning, meant, I think, that the word's meaning shifted.

In the same way, it seems as though 'so' could very easily migrate in meaning to become a sentence-linking conjunction. In the passage from Dickens above, you can see if you read close that "so" still means "in this way," and is used in a way that matches that meaning. "So" in that sentence means "in that arrangement." But if one isn't reading in the precise sense, it's easy to read "so" as referring to all that came before, and people often use "so" very loosely, meaning something more like "therefore," as in I didn't want to eat ice cream. So I didn't - I went home. From there, it's easy to start using it as a way to backhandedly change a subject or introduce a thought.

Like I say, this isn't really my domain, and all of this is just a guess.
posted by koeselitz at 10:51 AM on September 17, 2008

Sorry, missed a link. Here's the entry on the etymology of the word 'so.'
posted by koeselitz at 10:53 AM on September 17, 2008

Have we hit on the usage of "so" that means "like that"? As in "it has always been so" or "so it is"? Because I'm wondering if that usage, rather than the intensifying ("it was so cold") or causative ("I was cold, so I put on a coat") usages, is where the "so I'm going to put on a coat" thing comes from.
posted by craichead at 11:20 AM on September 17, 2008

craichead: I end sentences with "so"! I didn't know it was an Irish thing. I always took it to be kind of a mix between trailing off and implying that the next thing to come is dead obvious.

It reminds me of the way they awkwardly conclude conversations with "Anyways" on Deadwood. For awhile I think I made non-awkward conversations awkward just by half-consciously aping Deadwood.
posted by Beardman at 11:28 AM on September 17, 2008

I actually think the Irish ending sentences in "so" is different from the trailing off "so." The Irish "so" is emphatic. It's actually kind of the opposite of trailing off.

What it might be related to is the American usage that forcefully negates a negative statement.

For instance:

"You aren't a good driver."

"I am so!"
posted by craichead at 11:53 AM on September 17, 2008

Re: Heaney starting Beowulf with "So," I'm just going to point out that every medievalist/specialist in Old English (Old Anglicist) I've talked to is of the general opinion that Heaney's translation work is very pretty, but isn't a very good translation in the sense that it is more Heaney-the-poet-does-Beowulf than Beowulf-as-translated-by-Heaney. I'm not going to reject Heaney entirely out of hand because I've only flirted with studying Old English, but I do feel that the parts of it I have read are too ... smooth, and don't capture the rhythmicality of the language at all. Plus he's just waaaay too flowery. I like Raffel's translation, which is literal and sometimes downright awkward, but gets down that rhythm and the dark sense of humor much better.

On to "so" - Raffel chose to translate that initial Hwaet as "Hear me!" Also, Beowulf does actually use swa at the beginning of phrases (not sure I can call them sentences), apparently to transition from one narrative-chunk to another.

Line 164, Old English/Raffel/Heaney, Old English from Heaney:
Swa fela fyrena | feond man-cynnes
So mankind's enemy continued his crimes
So Grendel waged his lonely war

[See, this is what I mean. Heaney's line is beautiful, but Raffel's is much more accurate. The poet is saying that Grendel's violence/crime/sin is hidden/concealed; calling it his "lonely war" adds a tragi-heroic nuance to the whole thing that just isn't there, and it's irritating.]

Line 2397-8, same order:
Swa he niða gehwana | genesen haefde
sliða geslyhta, | sunu Ecgðiowes

So Edgetho's son survived, no matter
What dangers he met, what battles he fought

And so the son of Ecgtheow had survived
every extreme, excelling himself

[I can't be positive because I don't recognize as many of the words here, but I think Heaney's being pretty again. Lookit all that Norman-influenced vocabulary.]

Here's another way it's used, when Hrothgar is speecifying to Beowulf about how to rule. Line 1769 and part of 1770 for coherence:
"Swa ic Hring-Dena | hund missera / weold under wolcnum..."
"So I have led the Danes for half / a hundred years..."
"Just so I ruled the Ring-Danes' country / for fifty years..."

This is the "in this way" meaning koeselitz refers to above, I think. In this part I think Heaney's translation might actually be more accurate, since modern readers would be inclined to parse "so I have led" as a causal phrase or as the beginning of an anecdote, but I'm pretty sure (note: I am not a translator, but I do have some knowledge of Old English and have studied this poem a fair amount) Hrothgar is basically saying, "Blah blah blah pessimistic Old English advice about being a ruler blah blah blah. This is how [Swa] I have ruled the Danes for half a century, etc."

It looks like swa/so's history as a sentence-linking conjunction dates at least to the 11th century, which is the youngest benchmark for the origin of Beowulf. In the examples above, I don't think the narrative swa's are very different in meaning from the one in Hrothgar's speech - in the narrative, they're saying that events have proceeded in the manner previously established, and in the speech, "this way" is the manner of Hrothgar's ruling. I'm wondering if "so" then migrated in meaning so that it could continue a narrative even when there's no previous narrative to continue from. "So I went to the story" is a very informal way to start a story (which is why I don't really like it as a way to start Beowulf, jeez). Instead of "in this way," it now means "here's how it is/was," or maybe, "Attention: storytime!" But the two/three meanings blend a lot, making it difficult to parse.
posted by bettafish at 12:51 PM on September 17, 2008 [3 favorites]

Oh, and I should specify that I am totally guessing this as I go along. All I have is a smidgen of Old English classes, the study of Beowulf a few times 'round, and the books in front of me.
posted by bettafish at 12:53 PM on September 17, 2008

disclaimer: I am not a native English speaker and have spoken English for fewer than fifteen years.

I can't say when this usage became popular, but I certainly have heard it since the mid-1990s with great frequency. In my mind, I've heard it often in earlier films and so on, but the only really solid evidence I can come up with is in comedic routines from as early as the 1950s - Lenny Bruce made use of "so" as a means of creating the illusion that a story occurs in medias res - a useful thing when one wants to tell a joke without a lot of prefacing for context. The etymological reference to Mario Pei's belief that it originated in Yiddish seems very possible - a kind of cousin of "nu."

I suspect that this "modern" usage goes back at least as far as hipster language of the Beat era - but probably way before that. The reality is that any language I know anything about has some word (or more often words) which function in the same way and tend to be short signifiers that have the same semiotic sense as "so" - I don't think it's unusual at all.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 1:29 PM on September 17, 2008

I agree that "so" is an ancient word and can be used in a narrative in a lot of subtle ways. But I also think the usage the OP is calling out is relatively recent in, at least, its popularity. The specific usage is not as a conjunction which indicates the effect of a cause. It's used, instead, without any cause being mentioned: as the introductory word in the first sentence of a new communication. That is what makes it stand out: That it doesn't occur with any earlier clause to which it's linking a later clause.
posted by Miko at 1:43 PM on September 17, 2008

Response by poster: Right, Miko. That's what I mean. The word in this context is unnecessary to the sentence and it's overuse is irritating.
posted by partner at 2:40 PM on September 17, 2008

Miko: There's no question that, "So, I was standing in the line at the bank, and then suddenly I was kidnapped by aliens!" is very different from, "And then I realized I had a cash I needed to check. So there I was standing in line when suddenly, I was kidnapped by aliens!" But the op's asking for the etymology of a particular meaning of a particular construction, which means we need to establish the history of the whole construction.

I think even the newer "initial-so" is much older than the TV shows and lifestyle fads being cited here. The cycle of meaning transition seems to be:

Here's how it was --> Here's the next part of the story --> Hey, listen, here's a story

I'm very skeptical that the first two meanings could already exist by the 11th century at the latest, and then not evolve farther until the 20th. Instead, here's my guess: the third meaning is an oral meme, used more informally than the first two, and bounces up and down in regional popularity based on ... erm, whatever factors influence that kind of thing.

(On that note, I've decided I'm okay with Heaney using "so" to start the poem. His vision of the bard speaking the poem is a little different than mine, that's all. Heaney's is plain-spoken, mine is a little more aware of the art of performance. Of course, the dude and/or dudes are dead, so it's not like we'll ever know.)

Hmmm. It looks pretty, but I have no idea if it makes sense. Languagehat, you here?
posted by bettafish at 2:41 PM on September 17, 2008

Just a random piece of trivia to follow up to desuetude's comment...I'm almost positive that the pilot episode of Friends begins with a "So" sentence (Chandler is talking about a dream).

I always looked at the So thing as a narrative device, to make the listener (or reader) feel like he or she is entering the conversation mid-action, so to speak.
posted by messylissa at 3:52 PM on September 17, 2008

messylissa: Close, but not quite. It's not even the first word out of Chandler's mouth. There are, nevertheless, many initial "So," lines in that episode alone. It's definitely a marker of generational casual speech, in other words.
posted by dhartung at 4:11 PM on September 17, 2008

I could be way off, but the French are always saying, the way Americans say "um," and starting their sentences with, "Alors" which is "so" in French.

I might be wrong.
posted by onepapertiger at 6:38 PM on September 17, 2008

So it goes.
posted by Wayman Tisdale at 8:18 PM on September 17, 2008

Bettafish, I like that argument, but I work with a lot of oral material - oral histories, recorded field interviews, narrative transcriptions, firsthand accounts - that are 50 years to a century or two old, and I have never come across the initial "so" before my own lifetime.
posted by Miko at 8:28 PM on September 17, 2008

@ klanawa: funny, it's caught my attention because it occurs frequently on NPR, mostly on Talk of the Nation's Science Friday.
posted by Barry B. Palindromer at 10:30 PM on September 17, 2008

Well, bah, it was a nice theory. But like I said, the idea that the third meaning would only come up now seems very strange to me. Miko, do the materials you work with come from any particular region(s), or all over? (Your job sounds fascinating, btw.)
posted by bettafish at 5:05 PM on September 18, 2008

Well, I have mostly looked at stuff from the American South (whites, African-Americans, and slave narratives), New England, and the Mid-Atlantic and a little England and British Isles. I can't say that it never existed, or, in fact, that the kinds of field recordings and transcriptions people made contained spontaneous enough beginnings of conversations that you would hear the "so" in the first place.

I do think it's a really interesting question. And though it may have existed for a long time, I think just anecdotally that it has increased dramatically in my own lifetime. I can't remember saying or hearing the initial "so" when I was in high school, for instance.
posted by Miko at 8:05 AM on September 19, 2008

So, I asked a question about this 3 years ago, and got these responses.
posted by Wild_Eep at 7:36 AM on August 29, 2009

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