Just \’so\’

It\’s the small words that are the most difficult.

I\’ve been slightly eccentrically mulling over the meaning of the word \’so\’ for the past few days. It seems capable of meaning almost anything. Dictionary.com gives more than 30 possible uses from adverbial uses indicating extent or manner (\”so cold\”, \”do it so\”), to use as a conjunction signifying intent or result (\”he seemed to be successful, and so he was\”), to a pronoun indicating proximity (\”nine or so\”).

The most common meaning in every day speech is perhaps least explored: \”so, I was walking down the street\”, \”so, how are you?\”, \”so, what next?\” Cambridge Advanced Learners Dictionary explores this more colloquial use, suggesting that \’so\’ can begin a sentence:
1. to indicate a connection it with something that has been said or has happened previously;
2. as a way of making certain that you or someone else understand something correctly;

3. to refer to a discovery that you have just made;

4. as a brief pause (sometimes to emphasize what you are saying);

5. before you introduce a subject of conversation that is of present interest;
6. to show that you agree with something that someone has just said, but you do not think that it is important.

That seems to cover most possible sentences and conversations. French and Spanish seem to have similar words (\”alors\” and \”pues\” respectively), heard constantly in everyday talk. These correspond to some meanings of \”so\”, but the correspondence is only exact in its inexactitude. To a certain extent, whatever they mean, these words are just used as punctuation, to fill space as sentiments and sentences are formulated – what a relative of mine use to call \”sloppy speech\”.

But there\’s something more. Life may just be, to use Arnold Toynbee\’s phrase, \”one damn thing after another\”, but we crave connection, some sort of narrative thread. By scattering \’so\’ through our sentences, we create create connections in our conversations, and form at least the illusion of such a narrative.

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