The New “Um”

March 18, 2011

Proper-English-speaking society admonishes us not to say “um” in conversation.  As a result, filler phrases and words litter our language.  They often hold little meaning, but they are, at the very least, actual words.  “Like, you know,” as we know, has been beaten into meaninglessness.

For some, curse words serve as a linguistic crutch.  I worked with a designer who could barely speak without using the f-word.  One day, I heard him talking to several higher-ups in the company.  I nearly guffawed as he censored himself: “I … um …called the … vendor and they … uh … said that was the … model we … um … needed.”  It all flowed so much better for him when he filled the pauses with “F-in’.”

But I’ve noticed a new phenomenon that may be moving into the common vernacular.  It stems from the increasing popularity of extemporaneous prayer in the Christian world.  A choir director I worked with a decade ago liked to begin practices with an extemporaneous prayer, which I never appreciated much as a Catholic, but more-so because she was bad at it.

“Lord we ask you to … just …be with us tonight as we … just …bring our music to you and …just … help us to praise you and … just … bless our practice and our lives in your holy name.  Amen.”

What a load of self-serving crap.  A sincere load of crap, true, but a load of crap nonetheless.  (If your extemporaneous prayer isn’t going to improve upon a standard one, then stick with the standard.)  What stuck with me, obviously, was the strange filler, “just.”  It was clearly taking the place of “um,” but in a way that might pass by the inattentive as intelligible speech.

I’ve heard “just” used similarly since then by amateur and professional preachers alike.  But ESPN’s SportsCenter one morning threw me for a loop.  The announcer said, “He was … just … bringing his A-game into play,” —or some such drivel.

Is it just to just say just when just is just not justified?

To be sure, I am not above reproach on this topic.  I have my own conversational fillers.  But I am loath to mention them here.  My friends and family need not be tuned in to more of my idiosyncrasies.  There is quite enough derisive laughter that accompanies my fumbling mumblings.

On the other hand, listening to people struggle to verbalize their thoughts is not so bad.  It is much worse, for me at least, to bear witness to speakers whose mouths form words as fast as thoughts exit their brains.

I know someone who was apparently abandoned at birth, passed over by the wolves, and was raised instead by talk radio hosts.  Whenever someone asks him a question, he feels it necessary to fill a ten minute segment of air-time before the next commercial.  I’ve heard pointless diatribes on the effectiveness of vacuum cleaners, smuggling wine past customs, and hiking shoes shopping pointers.  Instead of using filler words, he will say “… let me say it this way …” and reword his previous paragraph in case you weren’t bored enough by it the first time.  Speaking with him is akin to swimming upstream through rapids.

So, anyway, enough of my, um, nonsense.  If you begin to hear people use “just” as a filler word in conversation, please call them out on it.  As far as I’m concerned, they can just say “um.”



  1. IKR? um BTW like whaz up w/txt tlk 2?

  2. I don’t allow comments in a foreign language, as a rule. (I’ve denied oodles of them. Trust me.) But you’re too funny.

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