So 1

We were at the American Museum of Natural History in New York recently, and I asked a uniformed employee of the museum how to get to the Imax theater.

He said something like the following: “So you go through that door to your left, turn left again and walk all the way through the gift shop and through the exit at the other end, and you’ll come right to the theater.”


He started that sentence with “so.”

It wasn’t “so” as a conjunction introducing a dependent clause: “So that we’re not late for the theater, we’re catching the 9:30 train.”

It wasn’t “so” implying prior knowledge of the subject about to be introduced: “So, how was your trip to Peoria?”

And it wasn’t “so” used as an adverb: “So many people declined the invitation that we had to cancel the party.

So 2

In this usage, “so” may be best identified as an interjection that conveys no meaning of its own. I have seen the usage defined as a “linguistic pause.”

In that sense, it is similar to the words “say” and “why,” which one hears in the films noir of the 1940s: “Say, for two cents I’d knock your block off!”

I first noticed this usage of “so” while listening to an interview on NPR perhaps seven or eight years ago, but I find that it has been around much longer than that and is the topic of conversation on a lot of web sites devoted to language.

Some folks are quite passionate in their demands that the usage be stopped.

A writer on one business-oriented web site argued that using “so” in that way while engaged in commerce insults your listener, undermines your credibility, and signals that you are not altogether comfortable with what you’re about to say. (I thought there was something suspicious about that museum guide, and we did get lost on the way to the Imax.)

so 3

One person responding to that writer pointed out something that hadn’t occurred to me—that comedians for generations have used that construction: “So a priest, a minister, and a rabbi walked into a bar ….”

For me, whose life is all about the English language, this is an interesting example of how our manner of speech evolves over time. Often, change occurs without us noticing it. When did movie tough guys stop using “say”? But in this case it’s a specimen that we can observe and that probably is harming no one except linguistic fussbudgets, and that probably will fade away just as innocently as it came.

Incidentally, the bartender looked up and said, “So what is this—some kind of a joke?”

Pencil points and Burgers

August 28, 2009

penneWe once received an invitation to a dinner in Trenton, and the invitation came with a menu. We noticed on the menu the term “pencil points,” but we didn’t know what that meant. We resolved to be scrupulous about what we ate, but the dinner was several months later and by that time we forgot about it. After we had eaten, one of us recalled it and asked our table companion, who lived in that area, what had happened to the “pencil points.” “You ate them,” he said — the pasta. He was referring to penne, which had been the course before the entree. When we said we had never before heard penne referred to as “pencil points,” our companion said, “Well, I guess you’re not Burgers.” Hmmmm? “I guess you don’t come from Chambersburg,” he said. Comes the dawn, as my mother used to say: He was referring to a section of Trenton that at one time had been the “Little Italy” of the city and still maintained some vestiges of that past, including a few good Italian restaurants.



Chambersburg, incidentally, was a distinct municipality from 1872 to 1888. It had been a part of Hamilton Township. Janet Evanovich, who is from South River, has used Chambersburg — the Burg, as it were — as the locale for her series of novels and stories about bounty hunter Stephanie Plum.

“Pencil points,” “the Burg,” and “Burgers” are examples of slang in the strict sense. By the strict sense, I mean that these terms originated among and in a way distinguished a certain group of people — the residents of Chambersburg. Slang can evolve within social groups, demographic groups, professional or occupational groups — within pretty much any subset of society.

puzzledHeaven knows we had enough slang in the newspaper business, and I mean slang in the strict sense. During the summer semester I was explaining something to my class and I used the term “graf” — a common expression in publishing industries. I noticed a quizzical look on one student’s face and I asked him what was the matter. He said, “You always use that word – “graf.” What does it mean? This was about half way through the term; the class had sat there in silence up to that point, and I don’t know how many references to “paragraph” they hadn’t understood.

Douglas Quenqua, writing for the New York Times News Service, reports that slang terms of that kind may be passing from the scene. “Keeping up with the latest slang,” Quenqua writes, “is at once easier and harder than ever. The number of slang dictionaries is growing, both online and off, not to mention social networking media that invent and discard words, phrases and memes at the speed of broadband. The life of slang is now shorter than ever, say linguists, and what was once a reliable code for identifying members of an in-group or subculture is losing some of its magic.”



Quenqua points out that slang dictionaries as such are nothing new, but they used to appear at a pace that was in keeping with the natural evolution of language. Quenqua says dictionaries of slang have been around since the 18th century. I just finished reading a new book by Bernard Patenaude about the Leninist-Bolshevik Leon Trotsky. According to Patenaude, while Trotsky was living in exile in Mexico, he received from a union activist in Minneapolis a dictionary of American slang, designed to help him better understand the Americans who were a part of his security staff. In a letter thanking the donor, Trotsky wrote: “In the part I have already studied, which is devoted to college slang, I had hoped to find some abbreviations for the various sciences, philosophical theories, etc. (B)ut instead I found merely about 25 expressions for an attractive girl ….”

Quenqua’s story, which I read in The State of Columbia, South Carolina, is at this link: