Q: I have lately become obsessed with eliminating the phrase “I mean” from my daily speech. I find myself using it to begin sentences that would otherwise stand alone just fine. And funny as it seems, I’ve been hearing it all over the place, including on WNYC (from both guests and hosts!). Could you tell me what phrases like this are called as a class and the history of this one in particular?
A: “I mean” seems to have become the new “you know,” joining “like,” “um,” and company.
I’m one of those people who still struggle not to say “you know” with every other sentence. I’ve wrestled with this for more than 10 years, since my first book, Woe Is I, came out in 1996. That’s when I started making radio appearances and hence trying all the harder to stifle all those “you knows.”
I have no explanation for this, or for “I mean,” or any of the other superfluous words, phrases, and grunts that litter our speech. They’re sometimes called “fillers,” and sometimes “verbal tics,” and they can become terrible habits once they get hold of you. I do my best, but once in a while I let loose a “you know” on the air and get angry e-mail in response!
Eric Partridge has traced “you know” to the 18th century. He notes that there are parallel constructions in German (wissen Sie) and French (vous savez) that have the same function: virtually meaningless filler.
Partridge also has an entry for “I mean to say,” and the shorter version, “I mean,” which he says dates from the 1890s. In explaining what it means (which is essentially nothing), he notes that it “connotes apologetic modification or mental woolliness.”
I managed to get rid of most fillers by just concentrating really hard on NOT saying them. I’m not a speech specialist, but there are probably better ways to approach the problem, mental tricks to use that would make the process easier. You might look around on the Web for some tips. (Or else pretend that millions of people are listening to you on the radio and scare yourself out of the habit!) Good luck.