Lexicon Valley

Listen. So. What Are Those Words We Say Before We Say What We Mean to Say?

Rapper Macklemore, pictured in Monaco in 2014.
All right, OK. All right OK. Rapper Macklemore, pictured in Monaco in August 2014, is a practitioner of asterismos.

Photo by Jean Christophe Magnenet/AFP/Getty Images

Right. OK. Look, let’s talk about asterismos, a rhetorical device in which a seemingly unnecessary word or phrase is used to introduce what you’re about to say. The effect goes back to the Bible: “Lo, they came upon the stable.” “Behold, thou hast driven me out this day from the face of the earth.” And you see it in the famous first line of the poem Beowulf, as the scop, or bard, compels listeners’ attention with a clarion hwaet—“listen!” or “hey!” or “so!”

The effect is grand, often formal. Asterismos clears the air and focuses our minds. Look out, it announces, this is important.

Unsurprisingly, the device is beloved by the world-shakers and narcissists dominating pop music. On “Can’t Hold Us,” Macklemore chants “All right, OK, all right, OK” before he swaggers into his first verse. He sounds like he’s priming the crowd, using language not to convey information, but to assert his presence. Same for Becky G in “Break a Sweat.” “Alright, alright,” she purrs, “I see you been looking at it all night, all night.” Extraneous words are a luxury for those who don’t need to prove their right to speak. Becky’s verbalizations, purged as they are of semantic meaning, fizz with attitude.

When asterismos isn’t whipping up bluster, it’s telegraphing insecurity—well, ahem, yes—or surprise—oh! I had no idea. But its overall aura of authority (Look, you reach for the zero-calorie words when you’re stalling because they make you sound assured and confident) might explain why instances of asterismos stipple presidential oratory.

Let me be clear: Barack Obama is an asterismos champion. An NPR article pointed out that, in a 10-minute speech about the Manufacturing Enhancement Act of 2010, POTUS began seven of 11 consecutive paragraphs with the words now or so. Addressing students and teachers at the University of Texas at Austin, he teed up nine paragraphs with so and six paragraphs with now. At a rally in Chicago, now led six paragraphs and so opened five. Why? According to Elvin Lim, who teaches government at Wesleyan University, Obama’s tweedy, professorial diction doesn’t just communicate inevitability, or solemnity, or ritual. Now and so, he argued, “are examples of rhetorical pivots necessary for governance in a partisan era. Obama likes to say, ‘Now, there are those on the right who say … ’ because he knows the art of governance requires rhetorical pre-emption, especially in our partisan times.”*

(Fun fact! By anticipating an objection and then answering it, the asterismos-ful Obama is deploying yet another rhetorical device: procatalepsis, which allows him to acknowledge/defang the haters while also propelling his argument forward.)

But it’s not just the corridors of presidential power that are alive with the sound of asterismos. The rhetorical device resounds through Silicon Valley, where its matter-of-factness, bordering on abruptness, helps tech nerds cut through social niceties to the chase. “OK,” begins one character on HBO’s Silicon Valley, “We’re making a lot of money.” In an interview with the New York Times, Mark Zuckerberg sowed so many so’s into the start of his answers that Business Insider noticed. Journalist Michael Lewis snarked: “ ‘So’ cuts across the borders within the computing class just as ‘like’ cuts across the borders within the class of adolescent girls.”

Maybe the tic flaunts the Facebook founder’s confidence—I’m just going to pick up where my brain left off, and let you worry about connecting the dots—but it also seems to reflect an analytical habit of mind. Hyperlogical tech gurus are perhaps more likely to want to situate statements of fact in a firm chain of cause and effect. They don’t pull assertions out of the air; they find them at the end of a train of data. So so and right create an in media res effect, gesturing toward an invisible groundwork of evidence supporting whatever claim the speaker wishes to make.

Also singled out for above-average use of asterismos? NPR hosts and reporters. In the wake of listener complaints last summer, the radio company tallied up the number of times its on-air employees began a sentence with so for a single week in August 2014. They counted 237 instances. But that’s not shocking either: Asterismos seems perfectly suited to a friendly, casual smarty-pants who hopes to bring you up to speed. It’s a technique for situations in which the pressing question can’t be answered without a bit of background first. (Where was Adnan Syed the night of Hae Min Lee’s murder? So, the first place to check is his cellphone records…) Unlike the Beowulf poet’s “hwaet,” full of power and grandeur, the NPR “so” is informative and appealing, chatty and low-key. Still, it retains that subtle sense of authority—not quite the pistol shot at the start of the race, but perhaps the sound of the stall door swinging open.

*Correction, Oct. 14, 2015: This post originally referred to Elvin Lim as “she.” Lim is a man and uses the male pronoun.