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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Yale "So"

I enjoyed the AALS conference a good deal (notwithstanding the registration fee!), but my one comment about it (actually, one of two, if I ever get around to writing about what Orin recently said on the subject) is a little less substantive.  Judge Guido Calabresi, former Dean of Yale Law School, was the special guest and main luncheon speaker, and gave what I gather is a typically sparkling -- or should that be "twinkling" -- talk.  When he took questions, naturally, Yale grads were in the forefront -- a mathematical certainty, given that according to some studies, everyone currently in the legal academy is either a graduate of Yale Law School or on the faculty of the Harvard Law School.  One Yale grad (I'm assuming) got up and asked Guido a question.  And the first word out of the questioner's mouth was "So . . . ."    

I've written about the Yale So before -- the reflexive tendency to begin any question, comment, or answer, especially in workshop or job-talk circles, with the word "So, . . ."  I have no particular problem with it.  But like any such verbal tic, once you notice it, you can't stop seeing it (or hearing, I guess).  Indeed, one of my colleagues -- a non-Yalie, by the way -- used it to open a question today at a faculty workshop.  It seems to have become ubiquitous.  I personally begin most of my workshop questions and answers with the word "Dude," but the numbers seriously favor "So" as the most popular opening word.

So I will ask again: What gives?  Who at Yale is responsible for sending its graduates out into the world with this word springing from their lips?  Are the Yale So-ers aware that they are doing this?  When did it start?  And, although I don't particularly object to it, when will it end?  And what will replace it?   

Posted by Paul Horwitz on January 20, 2010 at 03:25 PM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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Well, as a Yalie, i don't tend to start off questions with just "so." Now occassionaly i will signal a reductio ad absurdem, by saying, "so let me get this straight..." Or a shorter version of that is to say, "so, um..." and then plow right into the ridiculous implication of their argument.

Like at my blog i talk about people having issues with Mother Theresa on the stamp, claiming that her good deeds are inseparable from her faith. And at one point i have a subheadline, reading, "So, um, all of that is inconsistent with atheism?"

But then again, i am a working lawyer, so that might change things considerably.

But i can assure you that its not like its in the curriculum or something.

Posted by: A.W. | Feb 5, 2010 9:42:13 AM

I used to notice that nearly every paragraph in my class notes in law school (my notes were generally full sentences and paragraphs instead of an outline or bullet points or something) began with "So". Sometimes I would go back and delete them partway through class, but usually I didn't bother. (And I was never a debater.)

Posted by: Roger | Jan 24, 2010 1:15:08 PM

Nu, such a big mystery? Counting "one" with the thumb is a traditional tic of yeshiva (small-'y') students and others who study or expound Talmud. Beginning with an interrogative "so?" is also pretty common among those whose speech patterns are affected either directly or second-hand by Yiddish (in which even a stand-alone "Nu?" can be sufficient not only as a response, but to initiate a conversation). Seems plausible that one or more law profs of yore could have brought these memes from home into the academy.

Posted by: A.J. Sutter | Jan 24, 2010 3:23:10 AM

Is this similar to Obama's "Look"?

Posted by: ano | Jan 23, 2010 11:48:10 PM

Jeff- You got it. Two-point nearfall with index-middle, three-point with middle-ring-pinky. The point of the difference being, I assume, to minimize the likelihood of miscommunication between ref & scorer.

Posted by: Chad Oldfather | Jan 23, 2010 9:06:20 PM

Chad, are you referring to the ref giving a sign to the scorekeepers on back points (3)? I don't remember giving the number 3 to anyone while I was on the mat during my wrestling career. Although, come to think of it, it probably couldn't have hurt ;-)

Posted by: Jeff Yates | Jan 23, 2010 6:01:41 PM

There's a certain grandeur -- or perhaps je ne sais quoi -- in starting every entence with "Roll Tide"

Posted by: John Tanner | Jan 22, 2010 9:57:25 PM

Don't forget the "I'm wondering . . ." opening.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Jan 21, 2010 12:32:37 PM

Chad, now I'm reminded of the old "Learn to Speak Minnesotan" skits from Prairie Home Companion. "So, how's it going, then?" "It could be worse."

Posted by: Bruce Boyden | Jan 21, 2010 12:23:53 PM

Many of my colleagues in grad school would start a reply with "So..." and they had never been to Yale at all, let alone Yale law, nor were they likely to have had professors who had done so. So, it seems to me to not just be a Yale Law thing. As for me, I think I usually say something like, "Well, let's see...."

Posted by: Matt | Jan 20, 2010 6:16:46 PM

Jeff-Given the current demographics of my house the only movies I see tend to feature horses, and maybe the occasional dog. Definitely not Nazis. Of course, holding up three fingers invokes a whole 'nother set of potential subculture cues. (The way I do it - middle, ring, pinky - is largely a product of having been a high school wrestler.)

Posted by: Chad Oldfather | Jan 20, 2010 5:59:42 PM

Chad - wasnt that (using a thumb to count to on the hand) the give-away that sunk the undercover Nazis in "Inglourious Basterds"? (I believe the idea was that the undercover Englishman put up 3 fingers to ask for three glasses of beer and the Nazi immediately recognized him as a fraud b/c he didnt use the thumb).

Posted by: Jeff Yates | Jan 20, 2010 5:23:24 PM

Hmmm... I always associated the "So" prefix as a debater's tic. I think we've already established that debaters are overrepresented in the academy, and Yale law grads are also overrepresented in the academy -- perhaps that is where it stems from?

Posted by: David Schraub | Jan 20, 2010 5:17:04 PM

Not too long after the original set of posts on this I heard a talk by a member of one of our science departments (my memory is that it was a biologist) in which she regularly interspersed "so" in just this way. And then I started to hear it all over the place. Just now, as I was trying to conjure up a way to begin this comment that was neither "so" nor "dude," I started to think about how one would start a question in my native Lake Woebegonian. And the answer was, "so."

A little Googling turned up the following post (i) suggesting that the phenomenon extends well beyond law schools, and (ii) featuring a first comment asserting that the origin is not New Haven, but rather Minnesota: https://addenda-errata.ivpress.com/2008/07/a_mid-summers_rant_so_why_are.php

Here's another tic I've noticed that as far as I can tell is largely confined to law professors: counting on one's fingers using the thumb for "one" and the index finger for "two." (Most people, I would assume, use index for one and middle for two.)

Posted by: Chad Oldfather | Jan 20, 2010 4:58:39 PM

So what are you trying to say? ;)

Posted by: Dan | Jan 20, 2010 4:30:58 PM

I think you're mis-hearing it. It's not, "So, ..." It's "so?"

Posted by: YLS grad | Jan 20, 2010 4:10:22 PM

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