Here's a topic... I mean it's a pretty puzzling one.
April 15, 2006 9:04 PM   Subscribe

Is it just me, or has the verbal crutch "I mean" (used as a conjunction rather than a correction) really flooded into American English recently? Last night I was listening to a radio show and nearly all the callers were doing it. My wife does it. My friends do it. I have to stop myself from doing it. Is this at all new? When did it start? I really don't remember hearing this (or doing this) 10-20 years ago.
posted by rolypolyman to Writing & Language (40 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I don't live in an English speaking country, and, reading your question, I just noticed I use it a lot. I must have gotten it either from the internets (that would be my main source of English knowledge) or movies. Certainly not TV, as I was using it way before I got non-dubbed TV.

And, strangely enough, although I am usually quite pedantic with language, I never wondered if this was acceptable in formal speech or not, and, as far as I know, I used it everywhere, regardless of formality. Also, I am quite sure I see politicians and other people who generally mind their speech using this on interviews and debates.

Thanks, now you've got me something to be paranoid about when typing/talking.
posted by qvantamon at 9:28 PM on April 15, 2006

I remember a high school teacher getting on our case for using "I mean," "and uh," and "you know," and she did the thing where you get a student in front of the class to speak without using any of those phrases (to great comic effect).

This was 1988. That implies to me that, at least to one person, "I mean" was already an overused cliche.
posted by dw at 9:34 PM on April 15, 2006

I await the linguists of MetaFilter to correct me, but I have always understood "I mean" to be a discourse marker. Discourse markers allow for speakers to hold the floor in turn-taking, to have a brief organizational pause in their speech flow, and to create topical "areas" within their utterances. If it wasn't "I mean", it would be something else, as we tend to need discourse markers in our language.
posted by oflinkey at 9:59 PM on April 15, 2006

I noticed this about one year ago. I have a strong awareness (and dislike) of "Um", "like", "you know", etc. and even though they are all very common, not everybody says them.

However, I started hearing "I mean" being used one day by several different people and then as a test I started listening for it. Remarkably, every single person I heard speak over the course of about a week used "I mean" at some point in their conversation.

It's really amazing if you listen for it, but it's not so noticeable as "like" or "you know" so it tends to sneak by.
posted by evoo at 9:59 PM on April 15, 2006

My guess is that it has been widely used for quite some time but you are just now noticing it. It's one of those things that people tend to utter or type without really thinking about it, so unless you actually consciously take note of every time it's used, you will probably not tend to notice it.
posted by Rhomboid at 10:25 PM on April 15, 2006

I mean, it's like, he was all, I don't know?
posted by the Real Dan at 10:38 PM on April 15, 2006

I mean, it's like, he was all, I don't know?

That actually means something.
posted by Aghast. at 11:05 PM on April 15, 2006

I make an effort to ignore (and forgive) discourse markers, although overuse is aggravating. I recently had to transcribe and edit some video of a guy who said "and stuff like that" constantly. The end of every sentence. Really stood out because it's not a common discourse marker as far as I know. Made editing a bitch. He'd say something really profound, but the last word of that "something" would bleed into "and stuff like that." Drove me up the wall.

I say "I mean" quite a bit, but it's not generally a discourse marker. I just suck at, you know, talking and stuff like that, and often have to clarify what I just said.
posted by brundlefly at 11:12 PM on April 15, 2006

I just suck at, you know, talking and stuff like that, and often have to clarify what I just said.

I'm actually more curious about this usage of "you know," which I've found myself doing as well recently. In writing it seems to serve as an indicator of sarcasm or irony rather than as a discourse marker.
posted by kindall at 12:10 AM on April 16, 2006

Just to throw in an aside, a common discourse marker in farsi is "yani" which also means "I mean."
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 12:43 AM on April 16, 2006


A translation, if you will permit?

I mean: Let me clarify
It's like: the situation was thus. . .
he was all: his entire manner and discourse indicated that . . .
"I don't know"
: his lack of knowledge was utter and complete.
posted by Axandor at 1:02 AM on April 16, 2006

The worse recent intervention is the universal use of the word "amount" to mean all measure, eg the amount of people in Trafalgar Square. All 400 tons presumably.
posted by A189Nut at 2:49 AM on April 16, 2006

The worse? Is that a term now? A worse, the worst.

I don't hear "I mean" as often as I hear "you know what I mean," or the shortened "know what I'm sayin'?"--to which I unfailingly respond to with great disdain and sarcasm.

so, anyway...
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 3:18 AM on April 16, 2006

Civil, there's nothing wrong with saying "the worse" if that's what he means. It's worse than the other, but not necessarily the worst of all.
posted by ludwig_van at 3:36 AM on April 16, 2006

So, anyways...
posted by grouse at 4:17 AM on April 16, 2006

The use of "I mean", "you know" and "stuff like that" is not limited to American English, or even to English.

Here in Austria, one might substitute "ich meine", "gelt / gell", and "und so weiter". Doing a bit of searching in google, I found that some German-speakers also complain about the overuse of some of these words -- especially "gelt / gell", which are mostly used in Bavaria and Austria.
posted by syzygy at 4:20 AM on April 16, 2006

If I'd said "The worser" or "The worsest" you'd have grounds to gripe. I'll give you I could have said "A worse" but that particular one annoys me so much. One you notice it, you'll see how widespread it has become.
posted by A189Nut at 5:23 AM on April 16, 2006

Mandarin speakers, at least the ones from Beijing, seem to use "negeh" a lot. It means that one or that and is used like um. Until you find that out, it can be kind of jarring (for an American).
posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:51 AM on April 16, 2006

I noticed when in Singapore that a lot of Chinese speakers add the syllable "-la" to the end of some words. I don't believe it modifies the word/sentence at all, but is merely a kind of sing-songy placeholder. Don't know if they only do this in Sing; it could be more widespread.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 7:01 AM on April 16, 2006

It'd be interesting to follow the use of "filler" words and phrases. Since they don't actually have any information content I'd bet they'd be good markers of change in language of conversation in an analogous way that DNA introns are used in population genetics.

I can tell a conversation's in Russian when I hear "slooshchi" (sorry, I can't do Cyrillic on this computer), which means "listen". To my non-Russian-speaking ears it constitutes about 10% of the words in any Russian conversation.
posted by TimeFactor at 7:12 AM on April 16, 2006

Civil_Disobedient: We do the "lah" thing in Malaysia too. There are legitimate times when "lah" enters Malaysian grammar (to emphasize an object: "inilah bendanya" - "this is the object") but most of the time we just use it to end a sentence. There is a certain style to it that's hard to describe but rather obvious if you're using it incorrectly.
posted by divabat at 7:27 AM on April 16, 2006

Sargeant, you got a lot a damn gall to ask me if I've rehabilitated myself, I mean, I mean, I mean that just, I'm sittin' here on the bench, I mean I'm sittin here on the Group W bench...

For some reason Arlo's drawn-out "I meeeaaaaaannnnn...." sticks in my mind. If that's an appropriate example, it's well over 20 years old.

Verbal Kint in the Usual Suspects did this a lot and the script is over 10 years old. ("It was a violation, I mean disgraceful!")

Axandor: hah!
posted by Marit at 8:10 AM on April 16, 2006

I hear "slooshchi" (sorry, I can't do Cyrillic on this computer), which means "listen"

Strangely, in English, I've noticed I only use the verbal crutch of "listen" when I am about to ask someone out. I wonder how I picked that up.
posted by grouse at 8:13 AM on April 16, 2006

On my team, it's "well, I mean," and for the native English speaker, it's the first thing that comes out of his mouth while he's formulating a response. For the non-native (Bosnian, I think, but I always forget) English speaker, it's just a filler phrase, like, 'um'. Most of the rest of the group probably does "I mean" occasionally, but it's not nearly as noticable as the "well, I mean"s that never actually serve to clarify anything.
posted by kimota at 8:25 AM on April 16, 2006

I can't say I've noticed an increase. But perhaps I'm too, like, busy being all like, you know, irritated to hell by all the, like, cretins who use "like" eighteen times per sentence.
posted by Decani at 9:24 AM on April 16, 2006

It's certainly not new. It was a pet peeve of mine in the early 1990s, before the meds kicked in.
posted by tkolar at 10:28 AM on April 16, 2006

heh, kinda reminds me of the phrase "that said" on Metafilter.
posted by Afroblanco at 10:30 AM on April 16, 2006

I think you're just paying more attention. Check a few quotations from My Dinner with Andre.
posted by MrMoonPie at 10:33 AM on April 16, 2006

As far as spoken conversation goes, I've found that "basically" is far more insidious. It was really bad a couple years ago. The basicallys were flying fast and thick. I knew someone who would say it every time you talked to her, sometimes even twice in a sentence. It seriously got on my nerves.

Discourse markers only get on my nerves when they're used too much. I find it most noticeable when somebody picks one as their favorite and uses it all the time. It's least noticeable when people use several and mix it up a bit.
posted by Afroblanco at 10:35 AM on April 16, 2006

heh, kinda reminds me of the phrase "that said" on Metafilter.

Wow, I never noticed that!

That said, I found it hilarious.
posted by ludwig_van at 10:54 AM on April 16, 2006

What really toppled me from my linguistic high horse was Gene Wolfe's Ascian Language from the Book of the New Sun.

In particular, Severian's thoughts on a story told in Ascian:
From this story, though it was the shortest and most simple too of all those I have recorded in this book, I feel that I have learned several things of some importance. First of all, how much of our speech, which we think freshly minted in our own mouths, consists of set locutions. The Ascian seemed to speak only in sentences he had learned by rote, though until he used each for the first time we had never heard them. Foila seemed to speak as women commonly do, and if I had been asked whether she employed such tags, I would have said that she did not -- but how often one might have predicted the ends of her sentences from their beginnings.
My concern with the ums, likes, and I means seemed somewhat trivial when I began to notice how much of English (particularly spoken English) consists of a very small set of phrases repeated ad nauseum.
posted by tkolar at 11:18 AM on April 16, 2006

This goes back a very long way. In Anglo Saxon, 'hwat!' is used a lot, very much as we would use 'well', as in 'well, it was like this'. This is also I imagine the origin of the upper-class English cliche 'what?', as in 'fine day's shooting, what?'

I suspect it's an essential part of casual discourse. It takes quite a lot of training to get rid of it, most of which relies on knowing what you are going to say before you say it. However this seems to defeat the purpose of casual discourse entirely and I've no idea what good it would serve.

I think it's something like thinking about your breathing: it's incredibly irritating while you are conscious of it but then you forget all about it and get on with your life.
posted by unSane at 11:49 AM on April 16, 2006

My concern with the ums, likes, and I means seemed somewhat trivial when I began to notice how much of English (particularly spoken English) consists of a very small set of phrases repeated ad nauseum.

Is it English more than other languages, though? My girlfriend is studying in Paris and learning French for the first time, and half-jokingly says that if you can pronounce a few phrases well you can say them all day and be taken for a Parisian. Alors, oui, bon, and d'accord, or something.
posted by ludwig_van at 11:55 AM on April 16, 2006

My latest pet language peeve, first noticed when I moved to California seven years ago, was people ending sentences with "like that." As in, "You could describe your project as a methodological inquiry, and, like that."
posted by obliquicity at 12:35 PM on April 16, 2006

I really don't remember hearing this (or doing this) 10-20 years ago.

I can't speak to the origin, but it has definitely been going on for at least 20 years. Heck, I was 15 then, and I know *I* did it.
posted by bingo at 9:35 PM on April 16, 2006

I, for one, am seriously glad that "totally" is fading as a favorite adverb.

That said, I think not.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:08 AM on April 17, 2006

Minor rant on this very issue:

I'm an English teacher in a non-English speaking country. I'm the only American in the teacher's room, though there are other expat native-English teachers from Australia, Britain, etc. I use "discourse markers" like "like" and "I mean" and "um" and "y'know" in the staff room because I'm being casual and friendly with my fellow teachers. The Indonesian-speaking teachers are fine with it, because they do the same thing in their language(s!) (and I hear the "-lah" suffix too, DivaBat and Civil_Disobedient), but the expats have mentioned to me that they think I'm being unprofessional, even though my language is much more correct and clear in class, because as mentioned above, I've already planned what I'm going to say/do/teach (and perhaps accompanying visuals on the whiteboard). It's the total opposite of casual discourse.

If I was worried about being promoted or fired or something, then I'd clean up my act, but as those aren't issues I am concerned with or that the whiny expat teachers could influence, I'd rather just be, I dunno, a nice guy. To me, a casual workplace environment is a sign that we can rely on each other, and, I mean, isn't that what working together's all about?
posted by mdonley at 8:39 AM on April 17, 2006

I mean, like, that sort of thing, was all common, certainly, back in the early 70's, you know? I doubt Guthrie invented it. Some of this was most common when groping one's way to describe goofy shit going on (in one's mind) under the influence of various substances.

Conversationally, I use "you know?" or "okay?" to exactly mean "Do you follow?". If I'm explaining something complex, it irritates me if I don't get an indication from the listener that they actually do know, or are okay with the premises (seems they aren't paying attention when that happens, but more likely they just filter it out as filler).

I knew someone once with a most irritating habit of ending things with "the whole nine yards", whether it fit or not. Another person was always saying "and things of this nature".
posted by Goofyy at 2:06 AM on April 18, 2006

Which is like the boss I once had who ended most sentences with "and so on." I never did get used to that.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:16 AM on April 18, 2006

Goofyy, just to clarify -- I wasn't trying to imply Guthrie invented it. rolypolyman mentioned in his question that he didn't hear it 10-20 years ago, so I was providing an example that was over 20 years old.
posted by Marit at 5:07 AM on April 18, 2006

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