Sunday 8 November 2009

Just go for it, OK?

It must be a sign of age. These days, despite my Eng Lit and Cult Studies background, I tend to find instances of linguistic innovation irritating rather than intriguing. Here’s a couple of recent examples that have raised my hackles:

A few weeks ago, at my place of work, I arrived early at a room where we were due to conduct some interviews, to find a young admin person setting out the furniture. When I asked if it was all right to come in, she replied – not ‘of course’ or ‘certainly’ - but ‘Yeah - go for it.’ Coincidentally, on another morning in the very same week, as I walked into the barber shop to have my hair cut, the equally youthful hairdresser invited me to take a seat with the same phrase.

What was it about the phrase that annoyed me? Partly it was the shock of the unfamiliar: hearing a saying I’d hitherto associated with the presenters of children’s TV programmes being used in ordinary adult conversation. Was it that my laconic middle-aged self simply felt exhausted by the phrase’s high-energy associations? Or maybe it was a cross-generational thing: the surprise of finding myself, a fiftysomething, being addressed by twentysomethings in the argot that they presumably use with each other. Perhaps I should have been flattered.

The second example occurred when I was travelling by train this week. Sitting across the aisle from me were two women, obviously catching up after not seeing each other for a while. As one of them recounted the familiar litany of children’s schools, holidays, new job, etc, the other punctuated her remarks not with the usual ‘really?’ or ‘I see’– but with a regular ‘oh - OK’. I’ve come across this conversational gambit before, and I’ve been trying to work out why it gets my goat.

I think it’s because I'm used to hearing ‘OK’ used as a response when one person is giving another a list of instructions, or inviting agreement. Used as my fellow train traveller was using it – to an interlocutor simply sharing items of news – it sounded as though she were giving her approval – ‘that’s OK, I approve of that’ – when it wasn’t asked for. Or perhaps the opposite was true. It’s difficult to convey tone of voice here, but there was a hint of questioning antipodean upspeak (maybe that’s where this useage originated?) in this woman’s ‘OK’, which made it sound like she meant ‘that may be OK, but I’m thinking about it before I give my approval’ . Either way, to me (as one not used to this conversational ploy) it came across as pushy and rude, as if the speaker were foregrounding her own (approving or disapproving ) response, rather than simply acknowledging her acquaintance’s statements - as would have been the case with the more usual – and more neutral - ‘really?’

I’d be interested to know if any of my readers – whether middle-aged grumps like me, or young things who recognise these verbal traits as part of their own repertoire - agree with my analysis of these neologisms.

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