October 19, 2004

Page Six sort of vindicated

Recently, Kevin G and I challenged a claim by The New York Post's Page Six that John Kerry's use of the phrase "sort of" is "a subtle indicator of upper-class origins or aspirations." Linguistic professionals backed us up.

But Sunday's New York Times offers a possible explanation of what Page Six had in mind:

Paul Kay, a linguistics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, has written that people use "sort of" to "express hesitancy about the aptness of the words they have employed."

Usually "sort of" is a way of acknowledging that your words don't quite do justice to the situation you're trying to describe....

Mr. Kerry's fondness for "sort of" may contribute to the perception that he's reluctant to commit himself or fearful of being held to his exact words. But it's also the mark of someone who's aware of how imperfect the fit is between words and things, and of how hard it is to do verbal justice to the corrugations of experience.

Could awareness of imperfect fit between words and things represent, to the Post, upper-crustiness? Perhaps. Now if only Bush could be made aware of the imperfect fit between his words and reality.

Heisenberg update: Apparently I'm crediting the Post with knowing about a linguistic discussion that only took place in response to the Post having brought it up in the first place. Jesse Sheidlower informs me that after I consulted him on this topic, he consulted other linguists, including Geoffery Nunberg, thus spurring the Times piece.

Posted by Daniel Radosh


The fact that "sort of" is a qualifier attached to words that might be imprecise is self-evident, linguistics degree or no. But by allowing a connection to elitism through "the corrugations of experience" (whatever that is), you're giving the Post a big old benefit of the doubt, methinks.

But that's cool. I give everyone the benefit of the doubt. I think it is very possible that the gossip writers at the New York Post are, at heart, dedicated semioticians.

Mind you I don't think the Post knows what it's talking about. Quite the opposite. I think it heard this analysis and thought, "Gosh, that sounds awfully elitist, thinking about what words mean!" Print that baby!


The post says Kerry's an elitist. The times says he's smart, and you say "that's probably what the post meant?"

Exactly: to the morons at the New York Post, anyone who's that kind of smart is an elitist. As I said earlier, I'm not saying the Post's claim is accurate, I'm just saying that I now understand where it originated, since it seemed to be so completely untethered from reality when I first read it.

Well. I have heard British speakers use “sort of” as a kind of verbal tic (more than Americans, I think, though I could be wrong). Maybe this is what the Post is talking about (i.e. sounding vaguely British equals upper-class aspirations)? Some examples:

Rowan Atkinson: “I think I was quite sort of self-contained... not, I hope, a loner. But sort of not really requiring the constant company of my friends in order to enjoy myself.”

Joanna Lumley: “Elinor Glyn was quite a remarkable woman…She was very daring and very sort of avant garde for her time…”

See also here: http://listserv.linguistlist.org/cgi-bin/wa?A2=ind0409D&L=ads-l&D=0&P=27449

really, all of this comes down to what the definition of "is" is.

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