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So it’s time to stamp out cruelty to small words

June 7, 2018

If there’s a word that hacks me off when used by a politician, a “spokesperson” or anyone else doing a media interview, it’s “so”.

As in “tell me Minister, what are you doing to fix this problem?”. The answer comes back: “so we have a number of measures that we will be introducing…blah blah blah”.

Why so? This little word has many uses, and it has the advantage over its synonyms of being short and sweet. As in “do it so”, or “we were hungry, so we went to the pub”. Or just “so?”.

But who or what has persuaded so many people to open their statements in answer to questions with so, and thereby turn its use into a cliché that makes me howl every time I hear it? I’m usually in my car when this happens, by the way, so I do worry about road safety in my immediate vicinity. So far, no accidents, fortunately.

I do use the word myself at the beginning of a sentence as an alternative to “therefore” or “as a consequence”. But its deployment as a device that helps the speaker to avoid diving straight into an answer is, to me, as bad as starting with “well”, or even “um” or “ah”, though not quite as bad as “that’s a great question”. It jars. It smells of media training designed to instil the art of obfuscation. Probably the same training that teaches sportspeople to precede every answer with “look”.

Another way of putting it, to quote from a website called, is to define so as:

“The first word of any answer given by a know-it-all douchebag, said to give the effect that they were already speaking when you asked your question or requested their opinion, in order to feign superiority or to imply that they knew what you wanted to know before you inquired.”

That just about sums it up for me, even though not every offender is a know-it-all douchebag. In fact, many are highly intelligent people with something interesting to say. They’ve just been misguided, or are copying everyone else.

I write lots of words, but rarely much about them. I regard them as my friends, and I’m quite fond of so. So I hate to see a little word stripped of its meaning, mutated into a bland precursor for use by people who don’t have the confidence to get straight to the point.

Which probably explains why one of my favourite characters is Saga Noren, the autistic detective from the Swedish TV series The Bridge, who has never been known to mince words. She annihilates them.

Taking a cue from Saga, here’s a word of advice to would-be interviewees. Next time you are asked a question on radio or TV, try taking a leaf out of her book. Instead of answering with a stream of blather preceded by “so”, try replying with “this is not relevant”, or “that is a stupid question”. Or possibly, under extremely rare circumstances (on Love Island, for example) “do you want to have sex?”

Yes, I know – that would never do. And trying to stop the mutation of a language is pointless and futile. But occasionally, spending an hour or so on a pedantic rant is a welcome diversion from Brexit, Donald Trump, the World Cup, Italian politicians, fake news, snake heads that bite people, Melania’s absence, knife crime, plasticised oceans, pooping joggers, murder, mayhem and all the other consequential stuff that demands attention.

Small things also matter. So it’s time to stop victimising small words that can’t defend themselves. So there.

From → Media, Politics, Social, UK, USA

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