Q: In a TV film I caught, an American teenager expostulates, “I’m so not coming here again.” I’ve been dimly aware of this “so not” construction for about 10 years, but till now I’ve never asked myself where it comes from and what it’s doing.
A: The “so not” in statements like this means “emphatically not,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The “so” is an intensifier that emphasizes the “not.”
You could paraphrase “I’m so not coming here again” as “I’m sure not [or definitely not or certainly not] coming here again.”
The usage has been found in published writing since the late 1990s, but it was undoubtedly heard sooner in casual speech. And as we’ll explain later, this use of “so” is a variation on a theme. In earlier incarnations, “so” is used similarly but without “not.”
The OED’s earliest example of “so not” in this kind of statement is “Napoleons are so not fun to eat” (New York Magazine, Aug. 25, 1997). The next two citations are both from novels:
“We guess communism just got buried in the rubble there somewhere. And those Ceauşescus? So not missed” (Salman Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet, 1999).
“You’ve seen the carousel and it’s so not cool to be seen here if you’re over nine years old” (Jan M. Czech’s Grace Happens, 2005). Note that the author uses italics to emphasize “so,” reflecting the way the word is pronounced in this usage.
The OED includes those “so not” examples within a broader category, one in which “so” is used as “an intensifier, forming nonstandard grammatical constructions.” It describes these constructions as “slang” and “chiefly U.S.”
In the earliest such uses, the OED says, the word means “extremely, characteristically,” and modifies a noun, adjective, or adverb that “does not usually admit comparison.”
The dictionary’s earliest example, an outlier, is from Ronald Firbank’s 1923 novel The Flower Beneath the Foot: “What can you see in her? … She’s so housemaid.” Oxford calls this “an isolated use, apparently without influence on later development of the sense.”
The dictionary’s continuous examples begin with this one from the screenplay of Manhattan (1979), written by Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman: “Yale: ‘He’s a big Bergman fan, you know.’ Mary: ‘Oh, please, you know. God, you’re so the opposite! I mean, you write that absolutely fabulous television show.’ ”
The next citation, also from a film script, is a line in Heathers (1988), written by Daniel Waters: “Grow up, Heather. Bulimia’s so ’86.”
In the next variation on the theme, “so” is used to mean “definitely” or “decidedly” and modifies verbs, Oxford says. This usage was first recorded in the early 1990s, and again the OED’s earliest examples are from scripts—the first from a shooting draft for a film and the second for an eventual TV series:
“Oh thank you, Josh, I so need lessons from you on how to be cool” (Clueless, written by Amy Heckerling, 1994).
“We so don’t have time” (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, written by Joss Whedon in 1996).
An article in Brill’s Content in August 2000 summed up expressions like these as “the sort of slangy, informal use of so you might hear a teen of the MTV set employ, as in: ‘Omigod, I would so marry Carson Daly if he asked me.’ ”