‘Really!?!’: the Story of a Buzzword

A mousepad for our time

*Mitt Romney’s PAC is airing a commercial in which Newt Gingrich is heard defending his employment by Freddie Mac: “And I offered my advice. And my advice as a historian.” To which both the offscreen narrator and some onscreen text reply: “Historian? Really?”

*In a recent New Yorker profile, Portlandia star Carrie Brownstein mocks a Portlander who complains that a grocery store sells fresh pasta from Seattle, rather than something more local. “Really?” Brownstein says. “You don’t have a bigger battle?”

*After the Academy Award nominations were announced last week, the San Francisco Chronicle ran this headline: “’Hugo’? 11 Oscar Nominations? Really?”

Well, you don’t need any more proof that the snarky Really? is as viral as chicken pox in a day-care center. You’ve probably heard it a few times in just the last couple of days—especially if you watch Jon Stewart, who is a major user bordering on abuser. Nor is Really?’s attraction limited to the literati, the glitterati, or any other kind of -ati: It’s the kind of thing you can try out yourself at home. My wife is quite partial to it, and I have been known to partake on occasion myself.

I have the impression that the term—and its cousin, with which it sometimes goes out in tandem, Seriously?—has achieved such awesome penetration only in the last several months, but its march, in any case, began almost precisely five years ago. In January 2007, Saturday Night Live broadcast a segment called “Really !?!  With Seth and Amy” in which the “weekend update hosts,” Seth Myers and Amy Poehler, examined some idiotic action or statement in the news and, with a tone (as an definer puts), of “irony, disbelief, and condescension,” ask, “Really?” (Myers continued the feature alone when Poehler left the show, and it still pops up from time to time.)

In the first one, they riffed on the news that quarterback Michael Vick (this was before he got into trouble for dogfighting) had been arrested for marijuana possession.

Amy: And you got caught at the Miami Airport. Really? And you didn’t think they would check for drugs at the Miami Airport. Really?

My extensive research (and by that I mean a Facebook exchange with my friend Toddy Torrance) suggests that Seriously? came on board via the character Meredith Grey on Grey’s Anatomy. Meredith definitely favors the word, as in this exchange with Derek (“McDreamy”) Shepherd:

MEREDITH: What did I say?
DEREK: Seriously.
MEREDITH: Seriously.
DEREK: Seriously.

Why did this bit of sarcasm catch on so strong, so fast, and so across the board? Language sometimes or maybe usually evolves in an evolutionary manner, and Really? has quite the fit look to it.  For one thing, it’s got such a dramatic quality: Even on the page, one senses it being delivered with raised eyebrows and lowered chin. (Interestingly, I imagine the speaker’s voice as being either markedly high or low in pitch.)

It filled a need, too. Before, all we had was Are you kidding me? or You cannot be serious (the McEnroe variation), or the awkward Let me get this straight, or maybe Get outta here. Of course, WTF? (that’s the typed form; the spoken one is unprintable) is quite popular, but it’s more wide-ranging, containing sincere befuddlement in addition to snark. And the final part of the answer is that we are, indeed, living in an age of folly and of snark, which has found its ideal word. Really.


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