English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

The well-tempered reply

Q: I once asked you about the epidemic of people on radio and TV who respond to a question by beginning the answer with “so.” You sent me to a post that says this use of “so” goes back to Shakespeare. You guys have everything so nailed, but whatever happened to the well-established, reply-greasing introductory word “well”?

A: Well, people still use it, and we suspect that they’ll use it even more when they get tired of beginning statements with “so.” In fact, this use of “well” has an even longer history than the introductory “so.”

Since early Old English, more than a thousand years ago, people have begun statements with a “well” that’s unconnected with anything else in the sentence.

The earliest example in writing, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is from King Ælfred’s translation of Boethius’s De Consolatione Philosophiæ (circa 888):

“Wella wisan men, wel, gað ealle on þone weg … ” (“Well oh wise men, well, go all of you on the way …”).

(As we wrote on the blog last year, the Old English interjection wella was a combination of the adverb well and lo, a vague interjection similar to the modern “oh.”)

The OED describes “well” here as a “disjunctive use,” in which the word is sometimes “a simple interjection.”

This “well,” the dictionary explains, is “used to introduce a remark or statement, sometimes implying that the speaker or writer accepts a situation, etc., already expressed or indicated, or desires to qualify this in some way.”

But frequently, the word is “used only as a preliminary or resumptive word,” the dictionary says, adding:

Well functions as a discourse marker, often expressing an emotion such as surprise, indignation, resignation, or relief, but also used when pausing to consider one’s next words, to introduce an explanation or amplification, to mark the resumption or end of a conversation, etc., or to indicate that one is waiting for an answer or explanation from someone.”

So people who respond to a question with “Well …” are probably pausing to weigh their answer (either that or stalling for time).

Sometimes people begin a question this way if they’re asking it with an emotion like “surprise, indignation, resignation, or relief,” Oxford says.

The OED has this example from a Middle English poem, Sir Tristrem (circa 1300): “Wel, whi seistow so?” (“Well, why say you so?”)

And sometimes the entire question consists of that single word, as in this OED citation: “ ‘Well?’ said Mrs. Stanmere interrogatingly.” (From Mary Linskill’s novel The Haven Under the Hill, 1886.)

No matter how it’s used, this disconnected “well” has been extremely common from the beginnings of recorded English until the present day.

Interview subjects may use it in reply to a question, as in this OED example: “Why does he only cut short hair, I ask? ‘Well, I am good at it and short haircuts are more creative.’ ” (From a British newspaper, the Independent, 1999.)

Sometimes “well” isn’t used all by itself as a “disjunctive” beginning. Oxford has examples for “Well well” (circa 1015); “Well well well” (1563); “Well then” (before 1450); “Ah well” (1534); “Very well” (1529); “Oh well” (1582); and “Well now” (1550).

And as John Lennon sang, “Well, well, well. Oh, well. Well, well, well. Oh, well.” And so on.

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