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Like, totally, dude

If you’re going to complain about a new use of language, it’s as well to check that it is actually new. Thus Ian McMillan in the Guardian:

[T]here’s one recent language development that, if I were a cartoon character, would make me shake my fist and go “Grrrrrrrrrr!”. A few years ago, when people on radio or television were asked questions that required a yes, or an affirmative that was slightly less than yes (if that’s possible), the interviewee would reply “… It is indeed”, which is somehow weightier than yes, somehow more definite and more triumphant […]

These days “… It is indeed” (I’m using the ellipsis to represent the breathy, almost theatrical flourish that always seemed to accompany the phrase; imagine invisible semi-verbal flowers pulled from a sleeve) has been replaced by “Absolutely!”, with an exclamation mark.

In fact, I’d go as far as to say that “Absolutely!”, as well as being the new “… It is indeed!”, is the new yes.

A recent language development? The new yes? I think this is a job for the HTOED: | 04 as an emphatic affirmative sure 1803– • rather 1836/9– (colloq., orig. vulgar) • absolutely 1892– (colloq.) • a thousand times, yes 1897; 1982 • definitely 1931–

So absolutely has been used as an affirmative reply for at least 118 years; and, as HTOED defines it, it is an emphatic affirmative — ie, it is not just a flowery alternative to yes, it serves a different function (whether to express surprise, admiration, or deference, as it might be).

My interest was meanwhile piqued by HTOED‘s reference to the affirmative rather having “a vulgar origin”, so I heaved out the OED:

Rather 7. Colloq. (vulgar). Used as a strong affirmative in reply to a question : = ‘I (should) rather think so’; very much so; very decidedly. In this use the first syllable is frequently prolonged.
1836-9 Dickens Sk. Boz., Gt. Winglebury Duel, ‘Do you know the mayor’s house?’ .. ‘Rather’, replied the boots, significantly.

This is news to me, at least, since I had thought that rather in this sense was associated with drawling aristocrats. Perhaps they initially began to imitate this example of “low speech” through inverted linguistic snobbery, and then came to own it?

What is your preferred strong affirmative, readers?

  1. 1  adrian  March 2, 2010, 10:43 am 

    Ian McMillan would probably hate me… I’m pretty sure I overuse “absolutely” and probably “exactly!” too. I draw the line at slapping my thigh while hollering “HELL YEAH!”, though.

  2. 2  reen  March 2, 2010, 12:44 pm 

    I like to punch the air and shout “Whoo!”, myself.

  3. 3  Mark Clapham  March 2, 2010, 1:01 pm 


  4. 4  Bruce  March 2, 2010, 1:32 pm 

    So, according to the OED, the “vulgar” frequently prolong the first syllable of “rather”:

    “I should raaaather think so”.

    Doesn’t ring true, at least not for peasants or other “vulgar” types. How about:

    “Jeeeeeeeesssusmotherfuckingchrist YES”

    Do the infallible OED experts have anything to say about that?

  5. 5  shadowfirebird  March 2, 2010, 1:54 pm 

    Preferred strong affirmative? “absolutely”, as it happens.

    On a side note, it’s been pointed out to me that I tend to use “indeed” quite a lot, as in:

    “Strong affirmatives are quite useful.”

    A sort of a weak affirmative, or perhaps a strong agree-ative?

  6. 6  Ricardo  March 2, 2010, 3:20 pm 

    “Top bananas”

  7. 7  Barney  March 2, 2010, 3:28 pm 

    Talking of inverted linguistic snobbery, as soon as I thought of ‘absolutely’ as a strong affirmative, I thought that it should be followed by ‘Ron’:

    Some ads stay with you for life.

  8. 8  John Fallhammer  March 2, 2010, 4:20 pm 

    You betcha! *wink*
    Do we approve of affirmative actions?

    I thought the nobby way of saying “rather” prolonged both syllables? Just prolonging the first seems a bit weird-sounding to me.

  9. 9  Ricardo  March 2, 2010, 4:26 pm 

    “Rather” should take up as much time as Leslie Phillips saying “Ding Dong”, with a similar intonation

  10. 10  Jean-Pierre Metereau  March 2, 2010, 4:34 pm 

    “Fuck an A!” has always worked for me.

  11. 11  Other Alex  March 2, 2010, 4:39 pm 

    Weird creatures, pedants. Sometimes I wonder if they actually distinguish between “things I have noticed” and “things which irritate me”.

  12. 12  Ricardo  March 2, 2010, 4:52 pm 

    Roughly speaking, how much will The Guardian have paid Ian McMillan for this desperate piffle?

  13. 13  Hey Zeus  March 2, 2010, 5:49 pm 

    Other Alex – that was a neat summary.

    As a strong affirmitive I’ve always preferred “mm-hmm” because it offers maximum deniability.

  14. 14  KB Player  March 2, 2010, 11:22 pm 

    “Quite” is an irritating affirmative that posh English people use.

    “Rather” I associate with Edwardian public school boys.

    “Absolutely” conjures up debs and Sloane Rangers.

  15. 15  Mr Roth  March 3, 2010, 8:27 pm 

    I always though it was “Fuckin’ A” with the A meaning something like A grade, the best. “Fuck an A” I just don’t get.

    “Absofuckinglutley”, or is that for sweary Sloane Rangers?

    “God damn right”

  16. 16  Steven  March 3, 2010, 8:29 pm 

    I think “Fuck an A” would be a song in a porn version of Sesame Street?

  17. 17  Mr Roth  March 3, 2010, 9:52 pm 

    Nice one. I was trying to think what the A stood for, there are some obvious candidates, and how fucking one was an emphatic “yes”.

    “w00t”, but I doubt anyone actually says it (without sounding like a moonling).

  18. 18  Andy  March 4, 2010, 7:03 am 

    The affirmative “Correct” is popular amongst M&A lawyers – i.e. “You are stating what I already knew to be true – and I deign to indicate as such”.

    On a recent series of calls, in-house counsel to a large Australian company indicated assent using the (fatuous and grammatically agonising) construction “I don’t disagree”. Brr.

  19. 19  Freshly Squeezed Cynic  March 5, 2010, 5:11 pm 

    I always thought it was “Fuckin’ A!” rather than “Fuck an A”. I’m sure there are much better things to fuck, after all.

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