Such a little word, and yet...
I don't care for articles/letters/conversations where the topic is a complaint about how particular examples of English usage really irritate someone. But this one is perhaps different, and here's why.
It's the use of the word "so" at the start of an answer in a conversation.
I first noticed it about 10 years ago, where it was being used by academics, and it was irritating for me even then. The conversation might go something like this:
Q: How might Cromwell have dealt with this challenge to his authority?
A: So, in order to better understand the conflicting pressures on ....
Here, the word seems to mean the following. "I have understood what you have just asked, and I intend to answer it, and to do so I am following on the logic of your question, and in order to indicate that I am following on from the logic of your question, I will begin my reply with the word "so" because it is a logical connector, along the long the lines of 'I am hungry so I need to eat.'" Or at least, that is what might be inferred from it. There is another layer of meaning here, though: "I am very clever, very knowledgeable, and so I am not going to follow your line of enquiry in quite the way that you have asked it, because your question only serves to show how little you really know in comparison with me." The use of "so" here becomes a deliberate disconnection from the question, pretending to be a logical connector, but is in fact the introduction to a different topic that, the speaker implies, is what the questioner would have chosen had he or she been as clever as the answerer was.
This academic arrogance (because it is rude, whether intended or not) is a familiar part of that world, of course. Arrogance, competition and sheer braininess, often at the expense of social skills, are essential qualities in the world of higher education. Showing that you know a great deal is expected and required, and conversations are often with other people within the same field, so on occasion the speaker will know that the other speaker knows much of what is being discussed and therefore might actually believe that the use of this logical connector is appropriate because it is, in fact, a logical continuation of what is being asked without including any unnecessary extra information that is understood and thus, for these purposes, redundant. Whatever.
But it does annoy, and it clearly annoys others, not just me. Witness the minor viral links to a couple of interviews on the BBC this week, one on TV and one on the radio. They were both with Stephen Bates, the European Managing Director for Blackberry, and he had clearly expected to be giving a boost to the announcement later in the day of new products. Both interviewers wanted to do more than just provide free publicity. The interviewer on BBC TV asked about what had gone wrong for the company in the past, while the radio interviewer asked if the company had learnt anything from the success of Apple, the company who had overtaken them on a huge scale and who had helped move Blackberry towards extinction. Desperate to give no publicity to any other product and to focus entirely on the good news story, Mr Bates employed "so" at nearly every opportunity, as if to acknowledge that the question was being answered without actually attempting to do so.Of course, this had the opposite effect: his evasions clearly nettled the interviewers, who repeated their questions, as any decent reporter should. The resultant interviews were then linked increasingly by commentators and analysts, because in effect it was a great example of an interviewee struggling, always a gift to some, and this was a particularly well wrapped, large-bowed present. But for me, the heart of it all was that simple word, which skewered Mr Bates far more effectively than if he had used the old-fashioned response, "I am glad that you asked me that, and for me the answer is ..." and then proceed to ignore the question entirely. That "so" so undermined him. Not just so-so, but so undermined. Tricky little blighter, that word. Be careful.