So What’s with So?

So… A Tiny American English Word Settles into a New Home in Our Spoken Sentence

"Have you ever noticed...?" (as Andy Rooney used to say in his 60 Minutes monologue) how so many people nowadays are opening their first sentence - whenever it becomes their turn to speak - with the same little two-letter word (that actually appears in this sentence, too, though in a more meaningful way)? It's the innocent-looking innocuous little word: "so."

No matter what the previous question, comment or statement was, or the nature of the conversation hitherto, there it is. Nor does the context, content or subject matter, matter. In virtually all cases and instances, this habit can be seen or perhaps I should say: heard. No wait, not "habit", it's more like a tick. A mindless meaningless linguistic tick, that's what it is.

One curiosity about this phenomenon is that "so" appears to have found this new home well away and far from it's first home inside our spoken sentence structure. It has jumped right to the front of the line. Perhaps it snuck up there one day when no one was looking and now it thinks it has found a more prestigious and prominent home (from which I'll wager it'll be hard to dislodge). Nice ticky trick, especially for such a tiny little word—if it can get away with it!

You can look and listen for it yourself. Now that I've mentioned it, you'll find it with ease. It's all over the place. Watch enough talking head programs - especially the Charlie Rose show, but really, almost any traditional or online chat, conversation or interview show and you'll see it. I can almost guarantee it.

If the interviewee is a successful entrepreneur in IT, an author, a hi-brow elite, a young person with some noteworthy accomplishment earning notoriety, an arts or entertainment figure, or a more hardscrabble success story type (though with them it seems less common), and no matter the subject, field of learning or work represented, it's there. Be he/she a sports figure, business leader, playwright, a whiz-kid or just a whiz of some other kind, you'll hear them almost invariably respond when called upon by speaking thus: "So,...".

It's evidently an American (language) thing, but it's not exclusively so (oops, there it is, though I'll argue that here it has some real meaning to it). But it's more than just American because it's thoroughly global in application. People ranging widely in age, education, geography and culture, ethnic and global identity or background, all do it. Tech people for sure, but also non-techies.

OK, not "all do it" but many do.

Now, since it's usage implies something preceding, this "so" tick gloms onto the front end of so (oops!, there it is again but, again, I'll argue that here it holds some meaning) many a speaker's remarks when asked a question or when discussion just turns his/her way. It serves as a kind of purposeless lead-in to whatever—and I mean to ABSOLUTELY WHATEVER—that person says next. In this ticky context, it has no meaning whatsoever and carries none in the sentence in which it falls, even though it leads the sentence—indeed, it leads the entire spoken paragraph or soliloquy. It leads but does no other work whatever.

What's also peculiar about this development is that "so" used to be relegated to the end of so (oops,...) many sentences, again spoken sentences. Remember when a youngster (often they were young and perhaps less articulate and/or just constrained vocabularily) individual might say something like: "I didn't see what else I could do,... so....." or: "I told him: 'No I'm just not interested', ...so...", then just trailing off in that unfinished but resigned way with no more words to follow. In those days (now largely gone, aren't they?), it was just a dangling hanger-on word to signal, apparently, that the person had run out of thoughts and lacked a snappier, more confident or decisive way to close the comment, wanting to simply let the listener take it from there. Remember?

Anyway, that seems to have fallen by the wayside in favor, now, of this new and opposite tick. So (oops) OK, that's it, that's all I have to say. So long. (Oops, but wait, here the word is appearing in wholly different usage contexts, isn't it?) So (oops) these don't count even though, in any literal sense, their meanings aren't terribly clear, either, are they? So (oops), it's just an idiolect, I guess.