Made in America? That’s so not an easy question

Posted by on January 28, 2013

Today I’d like to focus on another informal frame, or sequence, which was brought to my attention by a message printed on a brightly-coloured shopping bag in a shop window: “I SO DON’T HAVE ENOUGH STUFF”.

Let’s assume that this is a meaningful message, and that the ‘I’ of the confession is a bag-toting shopper, implying something like: ‘I have plenty of stuff at home, but look! I’m buying even more, because I can’. Clearly the adverb ‘SO’ emphasises the negative polarity of the verb ‘HAVE’.

The sequence ‘so + negative verb’ also popped up recently in a radio detective serial, when a young theatrical agent, jet-lagged and hyped-up after yet another international jaunt, breathes excitedly:

I’m SO not going to bed until I’ve re-set my Circadian clock.
[She means she’ll stay up and party until her body has adjusted to the current time-zone.]

Is this use particularly American? To find out, I compared the ukWaC corpus, compiled prior to 2007, with the 450-million-word Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) – a ‘balanced’ corpus that includes 20m words from each year between 1990 and 2012. I focused on the query ‘so not’, selecting only lines with the emphatic meaning.

I found three times as many instances of emphatic ‘so not’ in COCA as in ukWaC (per million words). In both corpora the most common sequence is ‘BE + so not + ADJECTIVE, as in “This is so not fair” and “I am so not interested”. However, certain grammatical sequences are far more frequent in COCA. This table represents instances as a ratio between COCA and ukWaC (with grammatical sequences on the left, followed by COCA : ukWaC at the end):

BE so not + … VERB (continuous aspect): This is so not happening. 6 : 1
BE + so not + NOUN: That is so not the case, Brown is so not your colour. 3 : 1
BE + so not + PRONOUN or NAME: That’s so not me / so not Libby. (= not ‘typical of’) 5 : 1
BE + so not + PREPOSITION: I’m so not in the mood. 8 : 1
BE + so not + what/how: It’s so not what I expected. 5 : 1

Emphatic ‘so + VERB’ is also increasingly used without a negative – a sequence hard to spot because of the huge overall incidence of so. This is from a BBC reading by David Sedaris, the brilliant American humourist:

… when starved for food, the humpback cricket will chew off its own legs. … So he eats his legs and, unable to escape danger, he promptly gets eaten himself. That SO sounds like something I would do.

So + NOUN’ also occurs positively: “That is so 1991!” and “You’re SO Money Supermarket”.  I haven’t a clue what this advertising slogan means, but I can recognise a noun when I see one.

Just two of the many questions raised by this comparison are:

  • Can one say that one text is originally ‘American’ and another ‘British’ in this era of rapid cross-cultural interchange?
  • How valid is the assumption (beloved of campaigners against language change) that language is travelling on a one-way ticket from ‘over there’ to ‘over here’? Is there a gap between the real and perceived influences of informal American coinages on British English?

And what induced people, sometime in the 1990s, to start sticking a ‘not’ after emphatic ‘so’, and saying “It was so not believable” instead of “It was so incredible”? Does anyone out there know?

This sense of ‘so’ puts the spotlight on the pragmatic information provided in dictionaries. Most label ‘so not’ as informal. Some note that it is becoming increasingly frequent (true – there are no instances in COCA prior to 1996). The Macmillan Dictionary comments (sense 1d):

SPOKEN – used for emphasis with a negative. This is mainly used by young people.

In the impossibly ideal online dictionary, lexicographers would be working round the clock to review all such labels in response to rapidly changing patterns of use. This sense of emphatic ‘so’ is not always negative, so either the label would disappear or examples like “That so sounds like …” would be assigned elsewhere. And ‘mainly used by young people’? As an oldie myself, all I can say is “That is SO last year!”

Comments (7)
  • Fascinating, as always, Gill. I wonder if the slogan “You’re SO Money Supermarket” — apparently from a supermarket chain called MoneySupermarket — is a play on adjectival money (“successful”, “attractive”), as in the film Swingers: “You’re so money and you don’t even know it.”

    Posted by Stan on 28th January, 2013
  • Love the idea of teams of lexicographers working round the clock monitoring changing patterns of use. “Quick, we’ve spotted a shift in the meaning of ‘safe’. Get a crack team of lexicographers on it right away.” In my dreams…
    One of my favourite ‘so + noun’ combos is ‘so last season/year’ as in ‘Tribal prints are so last season, now it’s all about neutrals’. Obviously this has come from the world of fashion journalism, but a quick Google search shows it being used in all kinds of contexts, usually – I suspect – tongue in cheek.

    Posted by Liz on 28th January, 2013
  • A favourite of mine (from a US sitcom I think) was where a daughter responds to her mother’s inquiries about her love life with: ‘This conversation is so not happening’. Gill’s closing point about dictionary labels (‘American’, ‘informal’ etc) and pragmatic notes (‘used mainly by young people’) is an important one. These devices were always a blunt instrument – the space limitations of printed dictionaries made it difficult to say anything very precise or subtle. We need to figure out better ways of describing aspects of vocabulary and usage which are not ‘unmarked’. As always, the opportunities now available to us, thanks to abundant corpus data and unlimited space, aren’t always matched by the resources needed to take full advantage of them.

    Posted by Michael Rundell on 28th January, 2013
  • Michael, I have always wished that we could have a label that just said ‘marked’; meaning ‘There’s something going on here, use this word with care’. The opposite of subtle and precise.

    Posted by Liz on 28th January, 2013
  • I am so a fan of this use of ‘so’! I’m pretty sure I remember first noticing it in the US sitcom Friends, which aired from 1994 to 2004. I now use it myself, but always in a ‘marked’, humorous way.

    Posted by Elizabeth Manning on 29th January, 2013
  • Liz: I laughed out loud at your first comment. But yes, I meant to emphasise how difficult it is for any online dictionary to be up to date. Your delightful Ghostbusters scenario is unlikely, because of the inevitable time-lag before lexicographers get analysable corpora from ‘today’.

    What is needed is the money to fund a true monitor corpus – lexicographers would need software that they could train to scan a selection of electronically available data each day and indicate all changes in the frequency/collocations/’pragmatics’ etc of any word or phrase, based on comparisons with the current dictionary corpus. Lexicographers then scroll through all the results and decide how to update their online resources. A girl can dream…

    Posted by Gill on 29th January, 2013
  • Elizabeth: You use this ‘so’ in a ‘marked, humorous way’. And Liz says that ’e.g Tiger prints are so last season’ is used tongue-in-cheek, esp in the world of fashion journalism. I’ve also looked at numerous examples of this emphatic ‘so’ in the American corpus COCA, and found that many of them are tongue-in-cheek, self-deprecating, ironic, or funny by reason of their intertextual referencing (e.g to the sitcom Friends – thanks Elizabeth). Pragmatic labels like ‘often used humorously’ are not very helpful, because they don’t tell us how to distinguish a jokey use from a serious one; we would need to draw on a wider context and knowledge of the source.

    So to address one of Michael’s points, what would an online dictionary do (if it had the money) to describe ‘marked’ aspects of vocabulary and use to take advantage of the lifting of space limitations?

    Posted by Gill on 29th January, 2013
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