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So . . .

Andrew Steeds

Most of the time it’s relatively easy to track where certain widely used words and expressions have come from. Doing so will normally explain why they have acquired such apparent sudden popularity – and why they have also managed to acquire considerable unpopularity in other quarters. Terms such as ‘going forward’ and ‘impact on’ used as a verb clearly migrated into the mainstream from the worlds of finance and commerce, where they must originally have been used by someone wanting to impress others with the novelty of their take on things, or their familiarity with the latest encyclicals from American business publishing.

I’ve reached the age now where I feel the country’s linguistic borders should be closed on such terms until they can prove beyond dispute that they denote something that no other word or expression in the English language doesn’t already do just as well. Until then, put them in pending prison ships somewhere to the east of the City of London, which seems to be the preferred destination for most of these incomers.

Use of these terms brings out my inner curmudgeon to splendid splenetic effect, but I realise I’m mostly whistling in the wind. Times change, language changes with it, and what is fashionable now is not necessarily going to be seeing in the next decade. How often do you hear the once-ubiquitous ‘basically’ or the use of the suffix ‘–wise’ (as in ‘What shall we buy gin-wise?’ as I overheard to my delight in the 1990s), or the inevitable redundancy of ‘situation’ applied in terms such as ‘in a redundancy situation’? What resonates, will stick around; the dross will go to the linguistic wall. I should stop worrying.

But there’s one term I really like, and perhaps even more so because it gets royally up the nose of an erstwhile colleague. It’s the use of the word ‘so’ at the start of explanations and accounts, which from apparently nowhere is suddenly everywhere to be heard. ‘What did you lot do to sort out that text?’ I will ask, and the response will start ‘So … we figured that … ’. Ask a friend you’ve not seen for a while how things have been, and they will often answer with that initial ‘so’.

Despite its current ubiquity, I love it. I love it partly because it isn’t new at all, but a recycling from another era and I neither know nor want to know why it has suddenly become so widely used. I love it because it is how I remember stories starting way, way back in my childhood and because, as then, it seems to me to be saying ‘There is an awful lot that precedes the point at which I’m going to start this account, but the starting point I’ve selected seems to me to be the best place for the story and for your hearing of it’. And every time I hear it I think it bears out the truth of what we say the whole time, which is that everything you write, everything you talk about, is essentially a story. Finding the best way to tell that story is what writing and speaking are all about.

Still not convinced? Well, here’s the much-more-worth-listening-to Seamus Heaney explaining his choice of the opening word in his translation of Beowulf:

‘But in Hiberno-English Scullion-speak [I know, I know, but bear with it, please] the particle “so” came naturally to the rescue, because in that idiom “so” operates as an expression that obliterates all previous discourse and narrative, and at the same time functions as an exclamation calling for immediate attention. So, “so” it was.’

There you have it.