“So I sez to the bartender, I sez…” and a joke follows along behind. I can’t seem to remember any of the dozens I’ve heard over the years that started out that way, but it’s a traditional way to start a joke. It’s not a traditional way to start a technical presentation, although if it keeps up at the pace I’m aware of it, it soon will be.
Several years ago, I noticed that many of the younger county employees who regularly make presentations to the Board of Supervisors began their remarks with “So.” I didn’t think much about it until it became more and more common. Then I began hearing it on the radio and the television, but I figured it was just me becoming aware of something that nobody else would even give a thought to. I mentioned it to a couple of friends and relatives who had not heard it or it had not registered with them.
Over time I kept meaning to look it up online to see if there was anyone who might have shared my observation. I kept forgetting to do that, because it wasn’t that important. Then this week I heard an interview with a journalist who’s very familiar with the Chinese presence in Africa. Just about every time the interviewer asked him a question, he responded, “So, the Chinese have been interested in Africa for a while…” “So, they’re not only interested in raw materials…” “So, many Chinese who have gone to Africa have opted to stay there…”
That did it. I decided I had to find out more about this phenomenon. I Yahoo-ed it and sure enough, up came multiple entries on “So.” Studies have been done on it. There’s disagreement about who started it and where and why. Some professor in Idaho is credited with having said, “so” 45 times during a fairly brief interview. Not all were used as the first word in the sentence. Some were just regular “connectors” that we all use. I realized I was really late to this party.
So, one popular theory is that it was started by Microsoft workers in Silicon Valley. So, another posits that it did indeed start in Silicon Valley but could not be attributed to Microsoft workers. Some researchers explained it as academicians using it to “talk down” to their audience while others said it was a precursor to a presentation wherein the presenter thinks the subject may be overly complicated for the audience he or she is addressing. Other researchers disagree.
So, that certainly cleared it right up for me. Not! Of course I’m not talking about the use of “So” or “so” when it’s used as a conjunction or whatever, as in, “It was raining so I didn’t play golf Saturday.” That meaning is describing the result of something. “Because it was raining, I didn’t play golf Saturday.” Totally understandable and clear to 99.9 percent of English speakers, I’m pretty sure.
“Did you play golf Saturday?”
“So, it was raining, so I didn’t play golf Saturday.” Also understandable but awkward sounding to those of us of a certain age and experience with the language. “Like, starting a sentence with ‘so’ is like so weird. It doesn’t like make any sense. Like, why would anyone like start a sentence with it?” We’re so used to the overuse of “like” that we hardly hear it anymore.
Digging deeper into the matter, it turns out that a lot of people lay blame squarely at the foot of National Public Radio and PBS television. A number of bloggers say that’s where it’s most common. It was indeed NPR where I heard the interview with the Africa expert. There might be a connection or suggestion of a connection between the techie and smarthead use of the “sentence initiating, So,” and “high-brow” language. “Sentence initiating, So” is how it’s referred to by some of those self-same smartheads.
Another theory holds that “So” is nothing more than the new “Well” or “Um” with a slight pause as if the speaker is taking a final half-second to gather his or her thoughts. Um, well, so that sounds pretty reasonable to me. So, frankly speaking, I’m kind of looking forward to whatever the new “So” will be. Surely, it’s like just over the horizon.
Chris Daley is a staff writer and columnist for the Mountain Democrat. His column appears each Friday.