When my niece Brooke was little and the adults weren’t making any sense, she used to say they were “talking jellybeans.”
Now, adults who aren’t making sense (or saying much at all, even though they are speaking at a conference or on public radio) have a way of pretending they are.
They begin their statements with “so,” and they pepper them with “right?”
A badly written piece in The New York Times last weekend legitimized this linguistic malpractice by naming it, “Zuck Talk,” and associating it with the style of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and other talking propeller heads in tech.
So, prescriptive linguistics isn’t cool these days, right?
But it seems to me that all the motives for saying “so” at the beginning of a sentence and “right?” in the middle are impure:
“So” makes you sound authoritative whatever your experience, and whether or not you took the prerequisite college course titled, “Your Ass, and a Hole in the Ground: A Comparative Study.” “So” says: You clearly don’t understand the proper context of my massive knowledge on this subject and I don’t have the time to give it to you … but I’m going to start with “So,” so everyone knows I’m being patient with you.
And “right?,” asked in the middle of a sentence without taking a breath, is the most disingenuous rhetorical question ever posed. No hell below us, right? And above us only sky, right? Socrates is not amused.
“Right?”—to bring e.e. cummings into this—”an it that stinks excuse.” (And also, “an it that stinks to please.”)
The next time I have the privilege of listening to a speech in live company, and someone starts a sentence with “So,” I’m going to scream before the very next word, “WHAT!?”
And later in the same communication cock-up (after I am escorted from the room but sneak back in, through the bathroom window), the same twerp will make a dubious or obvious or imperious or disingenuous or pseudo-scientific point, followed by, “right”?
And I will belligerently bellow, “WRONG!”
Actually, I will do nothing of the sort. I feel gentle and kindly, especially toward young people who talk this way. I feel sad to see their credibility diminished by it. And I almost want to start a school that helps them learn to assert their ideas honestly, unapologetically and boldly, for the consideration of their audience.
It’s also possible that I am an old fart, defending a declarative and masculine style of elocution that already sounds as strange and old-fashioned to some ears as up-talk, so and right sound to mine.
So goeth linguistics, right?
Howard D Lettinga says
This is so right. Thanks.
Libby Harkness says
I loved this piece of yours which came to me via my membership of Gotham Ghostwriters – you are so right. However, I had to laugh as I often use the word ‘right’ when talking to myself as in ‘Must feed the cats now. Right.’ But it’s not a question just an affirmation to myself that it is something I am going to do as I get up to do it. I don’t answer myself either and I don’t expect an answer from the cats when I ask, for no apparent reason ‘So what’s happening.’ It is possible that as a writer I have worked alone for far too long with only cats for company and am slowly losing my mind. Sigh.
David Murray says
Libby, thanks for this, but I have to say: I’m not sure it’s slowly.