I’ve written before about generational shifts in language. If this topic interests you, here’s a parlor game you can play at home alone or out with friends. Count the number of times someone says “sort of” in conversation or a television or radio interview.
In everyday speech, we are all prone to using a verbal pause now and again, usually the “um” or “uh” that comes between words in a spoken sentence. As with hemlines, forms of verbal pause change with the times.
In the 1970s, “you know” was the verbal pause of the decade. For example, “I was doing my homework, you know, and I couldn’t do this long division problem, you know, so I called Cindy, you know, and she told me how to do it.” I became aware of this at an early age because sloppy language was not tolerated in our home. We had what was called the You-Know bell. Whenever any of us used “you know” as a verbal pause, my father rang the You-Know bell. Whoever said it the most won the You-Know bell prize. But I digress.
In the ’80s it was “like,” as in “Nancy and I were like so into Bonnie Raitt that we were like listening to her albums over and over like every night.”
I first noticed “sort of” in the late 1990s in a meeting of senior U.S. government officials and prominent industry executives. “Sort of” is a bit more refined than its predecessors. In fact, at the time I first tuned in to it, it seemed more a verbal tiptoe than a pause. Here’s how it might have been used around the conference table that day. “We need a policy framework that sort of gives companies sort of an incentive to offer innovative products while allowing them to sort of achieve sort of a reasonable return on their investment.” This wasn’t exactly it but illustrates how “sort of” was not used to mean “a kind of” or “a little bit” but rather, was a simple substitution for “uh” or “um.”
“Sort of” has spread like wildfire, showing no signs of dying down even in this decade. I hear it every day. Recently Jennifer Love Hewitt was on the Today show promoting her new book. I lost count of how many times she said it. Disappointingly, I’ve noticed prominent cable news anchors have picked it up.
“Sort of” is a slight improvement over “like,” to be sure. But once your ear is attuned to it, it becomes annoying to the point of distraction.
On second thought, forget this parlor game. It’ll drive you sort of nuts.