So... where did the 'so' epidemic come from?

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So I want to let off steam. Not "so" by way of explanation in answer to a question, nor "so" as a good declaratory start to a sentence that demands it. Just "so", a word which has been turned into a verbal virus that infects, it seems, most of the people who are interviewed on radio.

I prerecorded an interview in the early hours the other day in which the interviewee – she was from that part of academe where they speak like press releases written by trainee PR people – began each answer with "so". It was so irritating that I suggested that we edit out the first word in every sentence before broadcast. And, curiously, she began to make (a little) more sense.

In other words, "so" was an impediment. And I realised why it had come to appeal to people who are determined to give interviews without having to answer the questions that have been asked. It gives the bogus impression that the answer is a logical response to an inquiry. It's cover for an answer that is not an answer, but a statement that was going to be made, come what may. Think of this. When does it make sense to answer the question "Why?" with a sentence beginning "So"?

But even that attempt at a rational explanation is inadequate in the face of the epidemic with which we're now faced. Just as historians feel obliged in every context to speak in the present tense, and end up jumping backwards and forward from past to present and pluperfect to the present again in a way that would do justice to Peter Capaldi, the "so" habit has become a mindless business, and an ugly rash.

I'm the first to celebrate the flexibility of language, and the arrival of new words and linguistic habits. When they seem to serve a purpose, they embed themselves in our speech. But sometimes a copycat habit comes along – we all wince at the ubiquitous "like" – that should be seen for what it is. A scourge.

I don't know where it came from, although business conferences are often the origin. Fortunately, the people who say "going forward" in every second sentence have now been shamed so that those who still do it seem caught in a time warp, and surely they'll all soon be aware that it will sound as silly as "at this moment of time".

Shame is a powerful weapon, the antibiotic of the spoken word. I look forward to the day when someone finishes an interview by apologising for saying "so" too often, without having to be told that they had been doing it. If a few people acknowledged creeping guilt at having slipped into the habit, we'd be on the way to cleansing our speech of this particular idiocy.

Apart from anything else, I want the expressive "so" to survive as a good way to start a sentence. It has its place; it performs a function. But when it becomes nothing more than a clearing of the throat, or a tummy rumble, its days as a decent respectable stand-alone word are threatened.

It must not happen. So it's time to say so.

James Naughtie presents 'Today' on BBC Radio 4

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