It’s now official — we have left the Age of Reagan, at least as far as the American popular language is concerned.
Back when Reagan was the nation’s avuncular — and ubiquitous — president,* almost everyone adopted his vocal habit of beginning a sentence with “Well.” If you don’t remember or are too young to know, check out any of the contemporaneous comic depictions. Saturday Night Live comes to mind, but it became a universal shorthand way of telling an audience you were impersonating Reagan.
Not that he invented the practice, of course, but he certainly did more to popularize the word than any other person.
And did we ever respond. During that period I was working in a corporate setting, helping young computer programmers prepare for public presentations, among other duties. One of my standard checklist items was to encourage them to avoid starting every sentence with “well.” For most of them, the best they could do was to cut back to every second or third sentence.
Long after Reagan departed the scene, most Americans kept his habit. Even today, many people automatically clear their throats and minds with “well” before starting a sentence.
But if you listen carefully, you will notice a change has been occurring. “Well” is no longer the sentence-starter of choice.
So, what’s the new contender? To borrow a phrase from the late Bud Abbott, yes.
That is, not yes, but so.
I don’t know. (Lou Costello, in case you need the reference to Google the “Who’s on first” routine.)
I first became aware of the change on television and radio. When an interviewer asks an expert or author “what’s this about, anyway?” (or the current equivalent, for that sentence is another bit of Reagan-era autospeak), the person rarely says, “Well, let me tell you about my book.”
Now he or she more frequently says “So, let me tell you about my book.”
Or whatever the subject is. The “so,” like the previously popular “well,” doesn’t play a logical part in the sentence. It’s just the sound of the speaker’s mind grinding slightly as it’s shifted into gear.
At first I thought it was an individual quirk of the person I noticed doing it. But then I realized more and more speakers were starting sentences with “so.” Now I find myself waiting for it. If an interview doesn’t begin with “so,” I feel my attention hanging in limbo. I almost need that little word to signal when I’m to start listening.
But, on the other hand, if I do hear it, my mind spends a second or two saying, “yes, there’s ‘so’ again.” Once I’ve heard it from a speaker, I spend the rest of the interview counting how many times he or she uses it.
Well, as Reagan would have said, there you go again.
*How about that? I managed to work two fifty-cent-words into one sentence. Watch, I’ll try to add one more in the next sentence.