GenXso at 60?

From Ben Zimmer, a link to Bugs Bunny in “Rabbit of Seville” (1950), where Bugs says:

Don’t look so perplexed.
Why must you be vexed?
Can’t you see you’re next?
Yes, you’re next.
You’re so next!

(the relevant portion of the video is 1:55-2:05). You’re so next! ‘You’re really next!’ looks like what I’ve called GenXso, but well before the OED‘s first cite for it (1979).

Discussion of the intensifier here, with links to other material and a collection of examples. There are three contexts in which this relatively new use of intensifier so can be clearly distinguished from long-standing uses. From OED2, draft additions of Dec. 2005:

a. Modifying a noun, or an adjective or adverb which does not usually admit comparison: extremely, characteristically. [You’re so the opposite (1979), Bulimia’s so ’86 (1988)]

b. Modifying a verb: definitely, decidedly. Freq. in negative constructions. [I so need lessons from you on how to be cool (1994)]

c. so not ——: emphatically not ——. [Napoleons are so not fun to eat (1997)]

(The name “GenXso” is mine. Other labels: “Speech-act SO” in a 2004 paper by Chris Potts (“Lexicalized intonational meaning” in UMOP 30: Papers on prosody); “Drama SO” on the Yale Microsyntax site, taken from Patricia Irwin.)

My first guess when Ben sent me the Bugs Bunny example was that it didn’t involve GenXso, but rather so in the construction Geoff Pullum and I have called Rejoinder Emphasis (some discussion here) — seen most dramatically in exchanges like:

A: Did not!  B: Did so/too!

One effect of Rejoinder Emphasis is that it requires some accent on the auxiliary verb preceding rejoinder so/too, and one consequence of that is that the auxiliary cannot be reduced. So there’s a contrast between rejoinder so and GenXso.

(1) I am SO going to do it.

is ambiguous between the two kinds of so. (1) could be a rejoinder to something like “You’re not going to do it”, in which case am is accented and cannot be reduced:

A: You’re not going to do it.  B: *I’m SO/TOO going to do it.

Or (1) could have GenXso, modifying the VP going to do it (the OED‘s use b), in which case am can be unaccented and can reduce:

(2) I’m SO going to do it. [unambiguously GenXso]

So the question is exactly what Bugs Bunny says in “Rabbit of Seville”. The transcription above has reduced are, which would mean that we have GenXso, not rejoinder so — and indeed that’s what’s on the video, quite clearly. An unreduced are, which could go either way, would fit the music, but that’s not what Bugs sings.

We then have a good candidate for GenXso in 1950.


4 Responses to “GenXso at 60?”

  1. Neal Whitman (@LiteralMinded) Says:

    The Roman numerals at the beginning say MCMXLIX, i.e. 1949, so the antedating goes a little bit further back.
    Given the ~40 year gap in attestations, do you suppose it was independently invented in the 90s?

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Possibly independently invented in the 90s, but it’s also possible that there were occurrences during those ~40 years that weren’t noticed. What happened in the 90s was the rapid spread of the usage, through the influence of the movies Heathers and Clueless, which made the usage highly visible.

    • Ben Zimmer Says:

      Neal: The cartoon was made in 1949 but didn’t get a theatrical release until Dec. 1950. I don’t know why it was held up for that long.

  2. Cyanide and Happiness roundup | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] A visual abbreviation treated as an acronym. And in the last panel, an instance of GenX so. (Some discussion on this blog here and here.) […]

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