James Thurber on Fillers

There is nothing more vacuous in the context of spoken English than fillers – sounds and words that take the place of pauses and, if repeated often enough, are tantamount to vocal tics. “Uh” and “um” have as much meaning as the clearing of one’s throat and can therefore be ignored with some success, but when otherwise serviceable words such as “like” and “so” are repeatedly employed as fillers, they are downright distracting, while reflecting poorly on the speaker’s verbal fluency.

On December 31, 1960, the great American humorist, James Thurber, writing in The New Yorker, took aim at fillers in an article entitled “The Spreading You Know.” Here is an excerpt:

“The latest blight to afflict the spoken word in the United States is the rapidly spreading reiteration of the phrase ‘you know.’ I don’t know just when it began moving like a rainstorm through the language, but I tremble at its increasing garbling of meaning, ruining of rhythm, and drumming upon my hapless ears. One man, in a phone conversation with me last summer, used the phrase thirty-four times in about five minutes, by my own count; a young matron in Chicago got seven ‘you know’s into one wavy sentence, and I have also heard it as far west as Denver, where an otherwise charming woman at a garden party in August said it almost as often as a whippoorwill says ‘Whippoorwill.’ . . .

Thurber“A typical example of speech you-knowed to death goes like this: ‘The other day I saw, you know, Harry Johnson, the, you know, former publicity man for, you know, the Charteris Publishing Company, and, you know, what he wanted to talk about, strangely enough, was, you know, something you’d never guess. . . .’

“This curse may have originated simultaneously on Broadway and in Hollywood, where such curses often originate. About twenty-five years ago, or perhaps longer, theatre and movie people jammed their sentences with ‘you know what I mean?,’ which was soon shortened to ‘you know?’ That had followed the overuse, in the nineteen-twenties, of ‘you see?’ or just plain ‘see?’ These blights often disappear finally, but a few have stayed and will continue to stay, such as ‘well’ and ‘I mean to say’ and ‘I mean’ and ‘the fact is.’ . . .

“I am reluctantly making notes for a possible future volume to be called ‘A Farewell to Speech’ or ‘The Decline and Fall of the King’s English.’ I hope and pray that I shall not have to write the book.”