words; Obviously

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People aren't saying "of course" or "needless to say" as often as they used to. The word for both these phrases is now obviously.

I knew a sub-editor who crossed out of course wherever he saw it (except in corrections, as in "Lord Thing is, of course, a director of Sotheby's, not of Christie's..."), because it looked too much as though it was about to introduce something that everyone knew already. Obviously has just this function in such recent platitudes as "Obviously it's a Test match for England with much pride at stake" (Mike Atherton) or "I obviously miss the game" (retired football manager) or "Obviously I would hope for better British achievements in competitions like the Olympics" (Chris Smith).

Of course would have done just as well in all those cases. But obviously can do much better than that. When Roy Hattersley compares Peter Mandelson to "a door-to-door salesman whose merchandise is obviously second-rate" he's using the word at its full strength.

Obvious comes from the Latin combination of ob (against) with via, meaning "in the way", and Mr Hattersley is really saying "Anyone with half an eye can see what Peter's like." A feeble of course couldn't possibly have conveyed the aggression, not to say dislike, lurking in Mr Hattersley's obviously. It can also denote a certain defensive truculence (as in the politician's "Obviously you can't expect me to tell you before I tell the House". So it can be a bad-tempered word, like others beginning with ob-. One thinks of obstreperous and obstructive, also obnoxious, which is only noxious with a gratuitous ob stuck on the front to make it sound more unpleasant.

The question, though, is why obviously is being used more often these days. Is it because we're all so stressed up, subject to road rage, too many of us on the pavement? Maybe it's the old derivation coming back into its own: we're all getting in the way of each other.

Nicholas Bagnall

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