I fired up my e-mail this morning to find a note containing the following blurb for a collection of poems:
I was made silent and watchful by the continuing poetry here. I kept reading, sort of mesmerized by the consistent achievement, watching out for the occasional weakness. Surely the level couldn’t be maintained. But the weakness never showed.
One phrase jumped out at me. The phrase was sort of. A couple of years ago, my daughter Maria, then and now a college student (and a sharp observer of linguistic trends), commented to me that these two words were crack cocaine to her professors: irresistible and deadly. Note that she didn’t say “sort of crack cocaine”; she recognized that the qualifier would have sort of ruined her metaphor.
Ever since then, I had noticed my colleagues’ (and, truth to tell, my own) overuse-verging-on-abuse of the phrase in department meetings and lectures. The poetry blurb was a sign that it has migrated from speech to print.
Sort of is an adverbial phrase with two bloodlines, one distinctly British and the other American. The latter is a homespun qualifier; think of the bashful cowboy who is sorter (as it’s often rendered) sweet on the schoolmarm. The academic sort of follows the British tradition in suggesting an attitude of qualification and noncommittal diffidence that’s at once specific and universal. It is characteristically used either between noun and verb or in the construction a-sort of-noun or noun phrase. The Oxford English Dictionary cites a 1780 quote from The Mirror (“There is a sort of classic privilege in the very names of places in London”) and a line from Shaw’s 1903 “Man and Superman”: “I’ll sort of borrow the money from my dad until I get on my own feet.”
More recently, Tom Stoppard brilliantly nailed the Englishness of a character, Henry, in “The Real Thing” who is defensive about his love of popular music. Henry says: “I was taken once to Covent Garden to hear a woman called Callas in a sort of foreign musical with no dancing. … As though the place were a kind of Lourdes for the musically disadvantaged.” (Kind of is synonymous with sort of.) Graham Greene, meanwhile, invoked a cosmic sense of the phrase in entitling one of his memoirs A Sort of Life.
The academic sort of is in the British tradition and is neither brilliant nor cosmic. Sometimes it is a signal that a metaphor or figure of speech is coming up (an only marginally less smarmy as it were), and sometimes it merely signals a reluctance to stand fully behind what we have to say. It is uncannily like our students’ like: a crutch that has sort of turned into a tic.
Note: this above post originally appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Lingua Franca blog. I would like to update it with a sort of (sorry) crowdsourcing contest. This morning, the (British) Newsweek editor Tina Brown appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition for her weekly “Must Reads” segment. The seven-minute appearance was interlarded with so many sort ofs and kind ofs that the capacity of my fingers and toes to count them was quickly exceeded. I will send a free copy of my book The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing to the first reader to give me an accurate count of how many time Tina used each phrase.