Two Little Letters, Addressed to Everyone, That Speak Volumes

By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 24, 2007

So . . . .

Arguably, no other two-letter word in the English language packs so much sizzle for its size. It's a petite and potent word and it's everywhere. Like the Meaning of Life, the meaning of "so" totally depends on context and inflection. It can be an icebreaker, a social lubricant, a time buyer.

So is also a valuable connector. In the ever-shrinking global village, we use it to connect all conversations -- with family, with friends, with those we've just met.

In life: "So," smiling, sundress-wearing Jackie Kershis says to a couple of strangers on a recent sunny morning. Kershis sits in a hotel lobby preparing for the University of Delaware commencement ceremonies. "So. My younger brothers, who are twins," she says, "are graduating today and my parents will be through with the whole college thing."

Across the room she sees her father. She greets him with a one-word salutation: "So."

In art: On "Saturday Night Live," Kristen Wiig's recurring character Penelope strings her obnoxious, one-upping sentences together with the word.

"So. I'm going to Italy, too. So. Probably fly first class. So."

At work: Stephen Boyd, a consultant at Sun Microsystems in Burke, says that he winces when he hears someone -- including himself -- begin a sentence with the word. "What's really annoying is how pervasive it is. I catch myself doing it."

It seems to be seeping through the culture, he says, "like some verbal fungus."

The word accomplishes lots with little, says Mike Agnes, editor in chief of Webster's New World Dictionaries. "You can follow it with a conversation, or it can stand alone." He says he has noticed a tidal shift in how the word is used.

Traditionally, the word was just another:

· Adverb, as in "She held the noose just so."

· Conjunction, as in "The youngsters went to sleep so the parents could use the hot tub."

· Pronoun, as in "The opossum is in the stew and will remain so."

· Interjection, as in "So! That's where you've been hoarding the dirty diapers."

· And adjective, as in "Is that so?"

There are the playful constructions, such as say-so, so-so, so-and-so and so long.

Now, though, the word has been elevated to an all-encompassing expression that takes the place of a whole sentence or paragraph.

So.

The subject came up in a recent online forum for owners of Subaru Foresters. A contributor from Georgia remarked on the increased use of the word "so" as "an opener to sentences, phrases, rants, raves, posts, threads and all forms of speech in general."

Another forum member named Dan from Wisconsin wrote that "so" is a "conversation transition. Imagine that you're talking, say, nuclear physics with some beer buddies and you want to change the subject to, I dunno, [certain attributes of women]. After a lull in the nuclear physics conversation, you use 'Sooo . . .' "

And Subaru Forester owner Bottomley from New Hampshire wrote, "It also serves as an attention getter, to be sure the listener is tuned in before getting to the substance of the matter. It can sometimes take on a sarcastic or judgmental tone, whether or not intended."

Bottomley added, "In its adverb form, it's a word sooooo overused by teenagers."

Katie Couric uses it a lot on the "CBS Evening News." Following a heart-rending report on a recent broadcast, Couric says to correspondent Steve Hartman, "You know, it's hard to watch that without really getting teary. It's a beautiful place, and you did a beautiful job."

Hartman says, "Thank you."

Couric replies, "So thank you, Steve."

The July issue of O magazine turns the halogen searchlight of public attention on the word. An article on how to deal with self-consciousness refers to "So?" as "the Universal Question" and the writer suggests combating moments of self-doubt by turning the word into a cosmic interrogative. For example, she writes, if you worry that people might see your cellulite if you go windsurfing, ask yourself, "So?"

The word has been pivotal in literature for centuries. "Beowulf," the Old English epic poem written in the 8th century, begins with the word as a one-word sentence -- at least according to the recent translation by Seamus Heaney.

Rudyard Kipling penned "The Just So Stories" in the early 1900s. In 1986 singer Peter Gabriel released his "So" album.

Recently, though, the word abounds. "It's headed," Boyd says, "for the same sort of usage that 'like' did in the '80's. Like, you know what I mean?"

Where did the most recent iteration of "so" come from and when did it become so pervasive?

Perhaps it started in the dot-com world. "When a computer programmer answers a question," writes Michael Lewis in his 1999 book "The New New Thing: A Silicon Valley Story," "he often begins with the word 'so.' "

The word, Lewis continues, "cuts across the borders within the computing class just as 'like' cuts across the borders within the class of adolescent girls. It's the most distinctive verbal tic manufactured by the engineering mind. Silicon Valley engineers for whom English is a second or even third language acquire it as readily as native speakers."

Or maybe it's more popular because we need more flexibility in the contemporary world. Michael Erard, author of "Um . . . Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean," says that one thing that makes 'so' so useful is that "it ends with a vowel, which can be shortened or lengthened to fit all manner of emotional tones, settings and situations."

He says, "You can be more expressive and also think of what to say next simply by lengthening the vowel."

Soooo . . . in most cases, the word works in this age of globalization just as it did in the 8th century, as a signal that the Eternal Conversation -- and life -- goes on. The writer of "Beowulf" knew its value; so do computer programmers.

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