Q: I’ve been driven crazy from listening to Josh Earnest, Marie Harf, and Jen Psaki answer questions by beginning with the words “Well, look,” as if the listener was a moron who needs further simplification. Is this something new or am I late to the game again?
A: No, this isn’t something that began with officials in the Obama Administration. People have begun sentences and clauses that way—or very similarly—since Anglo-Saxon days.
In Old English, for example, the interjection wella was used to introduce a remark or statement. It was a combination of the adverb well and lo, a vague interjection similar to the modern “oh,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
The OED’s first citation is from a damaged early Old English manuscript, but let’s skip ahead to an example from King Alfred’s translation (circa 888) of De Consolatione Philosophiæ of Boethius:
“Wella wisan men, wel, gað ealle on þone weg … ” (“Well oh, wise men, well, go all of you on the way …”).
If one “well” wasn’t enough at the beginning of a remark, two or three would be used: “well, well” or “well, well, well.” The OED says this “reduplicated” usage expressed “surprise, anticipation, resignation, or acquiescence.”
The dictionary has an Old English example of a double “well” from the Lambeth Psalter (circa 1015), but we prefer this one from a 15th-century translation of Aesop’s fable of the two mice: “ ‘Weil, weil, sister,’ quod the rurall mous.”
Similarly, the Old English version of the imperative “look” was used with adverbs and pronouns for emphasis much the way we use it now. The phrase lōca nu, for example, was the Anglo-Saxon version of “look now.”
Here’s an example from Pastoral Care, King Alfred’s 897 translation of Cura Pastoralis, a sixth-century Latin treatise by Pope Gregory I:
“Lociað nu ðæt ðios eowru leaf ne weorðe oðrum monnum to biswice” (“Look now, lest this liberty of yours turns into a stumbling block to other men”).
Getting back to your question, we hadn’t noticed the overuse of “Well, look” among Obama Administration officials, but we suspect that you’re reading too much into their words.
We’d guess that the phrase is similar to “you know,” “I mean,” and other fillers that speakers use when pausing to consider their next words.
Try not to let the usage get on your nerves. It too shall pass. When a usage is overused, a fresher one is sure to come along—and eventually be overused and drive you crazy!