'I know, right?'
How overused expressions work their way into the vocabularies of soccer moms everywhere
It was at a chilly spring soccer practice in southeast Idaho when I first heard it. A new friend of mine, a transplant from Phoenix, was talking about kids and sports. I made a comment, and she gushed, “I know, right?”
That was two years ago, and now my own 8-year-old boy has adopted the phrase — and so have most the young moms I see at the school and church.
These kind of expressions aren’t called clichés — that term is reserved for overused expressions like “as luck would have it” and “at the end of the day ….” Instead, they’re called discourse markers, and according to Idaho State University sociolinguist Sonja Launspach, they aren’t examples of poor English, like some uppity folks might suggest.
Each discourse marker serves a different function in communication. “Well,” for instance, acts as a place marker, indicating that when someone asked you a question, you listened and you’re thinking of the answer. “Oh” signals that you understand what someone has said (and gives you time to come up with a response).
And “I know, right?” helps create solidarity by suggesting the speaker agrees with you — in other words, “you’re building a connection,” Launspach said. “Each (discourse marker) has a different meaning that they signal to the person that you’re talking to. They smooth things along; they grease the wheels.”
New discourse markers come into language all the time, and the more they catch on, the more they function as slang, or words used casually and commonly by certain groups.
Some slang gains wider usage for reasons that aren’t hard and fast. For instance, the term “cool” originated around the turn of the 20th century and was disseminated with jazz, Launspach said. Why it had such staying power can’t be determined in absolutes, but it could have something to do with the reputation and even the fame of some who used the term.
“If (speakers) are prominent in some way, their language tends to stick around for those who follow them,” she said. Also, associations play a role; if a group that adopts such phrases is perceived favorably, the terms might be used more widely for longer periods of time.
But quick changes in discourse markers and slang are common too, and that has something to do with the rebelliousness of youth.
“Slang is transitory with the younger set. Each generation invents new slang; it’s a part of creating identity for that group,” Launspach said. So as a way of showing they’ve moved on from whatever was in a few years ago, teens — and apparently young moms too — come up with new pet phrases. Maybe “I know, right?” is “now” version of “wazzup and “talk to the hand.”
One way these figures of speech spread is that people move to new places and pack them along. The person most likely to spread them is someone who travels between and within varying groups, Launspach said, and it’s common for ways of speaking in urban areas to work their way to more rural areas — usually not the other way around.
And so it could be with “I know, right?” Even though Launspach said it’s impossible to determine exactly why some discourse markers last and others don’t, that soccer-mom friend of mine did her part three years ago to help language evolve, to drag a phrase from the big city to small-town Idaho. And whether she realized it or not, she did her part to change the way local moms talk simply by validating what I, another soccer mom, said that cold April day.