General / Language · 7 Nov 2005

Unexpectedly modern

I have one of those page-a-day calendars with a new “insult from Shakespeare” on each page. (Actually, I have three of them. The others are a cross-stitch-a-day and an Atkins-tip-a-day. May I just say that I think the newer styles of these calendars that force Saturday and Sunday to share a page are a ripoff? Uh, that is, in the sense that there’s nothing to rip off when Sunday comes along.)

Today’s quote is one of those lines from Shakespeare that sounds weirdly modern:

Draw, you rogue, or I’ll so carbonado your shanks. — King Lear: 2.2.34-35

(Kent to Oswald, steward to King Lear’s evil daughter, Goneril)

As in, “he’s so not into you” or “she’s so dissing him”? I thought this was a very recent formulation, and had mildly disdained it, though I’m sure I’ve used it. I found a sub-category of this usage mentioned on a linguistics blog as “the So Not negative”, but without any history. Even the lovely Language Log seems not to have taken up this question, though it’s hard to tell when you’re trying to search on the word “so”.

There are plenty of normal uses where the degree of the “so” is designed to be proven or balanced with a “that” or “because”, as in this poem or the classic comedy bit — “My dog Buster is so lazy…” — “How lazy is he?” And if you translate the “I’ll so [verb]” formulation into “How I’ll [verb]” — like “How I’ll miss you” — the first one doesn’t seem so much like teen-speak (but maybe that’s because I’m using a verb like “miss” instead of “diss”!).

I guess I can now use it confidently, knowing that even Shakespeare sounded like a mall rat from time to time.

(By the way, there seems to be some disagreement over what “carbonado” means. My calendar defined it as cutting into strips or cubes, but some other sources I found suggested it was more like slashing or scoring the outside of the meat to make it cook faster. It makes an excellent threat either way, and “I’ll so carbonado your shanks” sounds positively piratical.)