I have a notion that “So” qua expository prelude – like a clearing of the throat – is beginning to lose popularity, which will no doubt be a relief to the many who found this usage particularly irritating. For a time I thought it was going to be replaced by Hmm. So:
“Minister, do you think vaccination should be made compulsory?”
“Hmm. That is a moot point…”
Personally, I prefer so. So indicates that the speaker has already considered the question on offer, and is about to put forward an opinion that has already been formulated – the Prime Minister might say it is “oven-ready”. Hmm on the other hand appears to suggest that the question comes as a surprise and that the respondent is thinking on her feet, but because hmm is synonymous with so, the hmm is a deception; it is faux-spontaneity. But I’m not sure it is going to take off. Our attention will be diverted by other buzz words.
Like, egregious. The use of egregious in my newspaper’s letters column is, like, egregious. I first heard President Trump use it, before he attained high office, with respect to Mrs Clinton. “Her crimes are egregious.” I had to look it up.
The Oxford Dictionary of English: egregious adjective 1 outstandingly bad; shocking… 2 archaic remarkably good.
I suppose we have a similar contrast of meaning in our modern use of the word “wicked” as a term of approbation. Egregious comes from the Latin ex grex, meaning standing out from the flock. Over the years, fame has metamorphosed into notoriety. Mostly, when the disgruntled correspondents to The Herald describe something as egregious, they just mean it’s bad, or gross, or grossly bad. But much as the world is full of that which is egregious, we cannot expect this word to overtake so or hmm as verbal upholstery. No. The coming word is absolutely. You can easily see why broadcast interviews are now full of absolutely. Absolutely has taken over from yes.
“Should we vaccinate the whole world by the end of 2022?”
The only thing that is stopping absolutely from attaining world domination is the fact that politicians seldom answer a question directly. “Knowing what you know now, would you have locked down and closed the border early last March?”
“We are determined to do all we can to protect the economy and the NHS…”
The only time politicians uses a word like yes or no, is after they have retired. I watched Tony Blair being interviewed by Andrew Marr on Sunday, out of a sickly fascination to hear the silver-tongued lawyer adeptly deploy arguments.
“Do you think people should show evidence of double vaccination to attend public events?”
No wonder Mr Marr said it was a pleasure to talk to Mr Blair. I thought well of Mr Blair for choosing to say “yes” rather than “absolutely”. My ancient 1990 Chambers Dictionary defines absolutely as “a colourless but emphatic affirmative”, so it was a hackneyed expression even back then. Another synonym of “absolutely” would be “no question”. In other words the answer is self-evident, you don’t need to bother asking. “Yes”, on the other hand, takes the question seriously and gives an answer that could not be more direct. Our Lord did not instruct us to “Let your absolutely be absolutely, and your absolutely not be absolutely not”.
So why is absolutely taking over from yes? Could it be that it is a reflection of a polarised society, in which people occupy an echo chamber, hear that which they wish to hear, and seldom reach across the aisle? If a dictator surrounds himself only with sycophants – “absolutely-men” – everything that he says or thinks will be taken as read. Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely. Absolutely is a conversation stopper.
Absolutely denies the possibility of seeing another side to an argument. Yes allows that no is at least possible. In that sense, yes validates debate. You could imagine a totalitarian regime banning the word yes for that reason, and insisting on absolutely. Yes would certainly have to be censored, and expunged from literature. Molly Bloom’s beautiful soliloquy that ends Joyce’s Ulysses would become:
…my breasts all perfume absolutely and his heart was going like mad and absolutely I said absolutely I will absolutely.