The English–speaking world seems to be divided into two. On one hand are the people – you hear them every day on the broadcast media – who answer a question, any question, with the conjunction: “So – “. Dominic Cummings, in his famous Rose Garden press conference, did it all the time. On the other hand, there are the rest of us, who are utterly baffled by this weird, illogical interjection.
It wasn’t around before the turn of this century, I’ll swear. It has no precursors, it isn’t an abbreviation of an earlier turn of phrase. Where has it sprung from, all of a sudden? “So” is usually either a conjunction: “It looked like rain, so I took my umbrella”, or an intensifier: “it rained so hard, I took my umbrella.” The D.N.B. covers several pages with the minutiae of usage connected with so, including its use in phrases like “so far, so good.” Buried among all that detail is an obsolete usage as “an introductory particle”: one citation is from Sheridan’s The Rivals, 1775: “So, so, Ma’am, I humbly beg pardon.” The context is very different. The two principal senses of the word in modern English are those I’ve just given. Is the newcomer a revival of that, or some other obsolete usage?
More plausible is the idea that it is the translation of a foreign idiom into English, such as we frequently find in the U.S.A. An example that has established itself here is “enjoy!” to someone about to eat. This is a direct translation of the German (or Yiddish) encouragement to eat well preceding a meal, common in many languages but oddly not in English. It has migrated naturally among immigrant Americans into everyday English. The German for so is “also” – as in “Also sprach Zarathustra”, where it is usually translated “thus”. In that phrase, although it is a title, there is an implied antecedent. But Germans also use their word also as an introductory particle or interjection, and I think that is how our so has reached us in the new use. As so often, the origin is American.
But in the way that art often has of anticipating life, there is a striking instance of so being used in its new introductory sense, in Seamus Heaney’s translation of the great Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf. This great saga begins, in his translation of 1999 (note the year):
So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
And the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness… .
Heaney explains: “Conventional renderings of hwaet, the first word of the poem, tend towards the archaic-literary, with ‘lo’, ‘hark’, behold’, ‘attend’ and – more colloquially – ‘listen’ being some of the solutions offered previously. But in Hiberno-English Scullion-speak, the particle ‘so’ came naturally to the rescue, because in that idiom ‘so’ operates as an expression that obliterates all previous discourse and narrative and at the same time functions as an exclamation calling for immediate attention.”
Well, the politicians and public figures, as well as the general run of interviewees on radio and television, who unthinkingly preface their answers with “So” are no doubt unaware that they are employing “Hiberno-English Scullion-speak”, but it will surely give them pleasure when they learn that this is the case.