Listen, rabbit, it’s curtains for you, right?
Listen, rabbit, it’s curtains for you, right?

A couple of weeks ago, I reflected on the related phrases kind of and sort of, which I described as academics’ crack cocaine. I am here now to suggest another commonly abused substance, right? The question mark belongs to the speakers, not to me, as they use the word at the end of sentences in order to ascertain whether the meaning has been comprehended:

Whitman’s poetics were reflexively transgressive, right?

Actually, my observation is that in speech, the word is generally uttered without the customary interrogatory ascent, so it ends up:

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Whitman’s poetics were reflexively transgressive, right.

It comes out as reminiscent of an old-school Edward G. Robinson impression: We’re going to rub out Lefty, see, and then we’ll take over the territory, right.

Giving credence to the proposition that you can find anything on the Internet, there is an exchange at the Quora question-and-answer site with the heading, “When and why did everyone start ending sentences with ‘right?’?” Joshua Engel, who describes himself with the one-word epithet “Polymath,” characterizes the convention as merely “a question tag ... a common feature of many languages, like the French n’est-ce pas or the much-mocked Canadian ‘eh.’” Micah Siegel (“Professor at Stanford and Investor”) goes considerably deeper:

My take is that this is a classic speech virus. It jumps from person to person because it increases rhetorical effectiveness of a statement. So listeners pick it up and use it themselves.

I believe it started in the particle physics community in the early 1980s, spread to the solid state physics community in the mid 1980s and then to the neuroscience community in the late 1980s. It appears to have gone mainstream just in the past few years. I am not sure what caused this latest jump.

This virus propagates because it increases the rhetorical effectiveness of the statement it follows. The reason it increases the rhetorical effectiveness is that the listener is made to agree with the statement implicitly, by not raising an objection at the time of the statement.

It may also have become a tic or a habit for some speakers. However, this is a different phenomenon. The original genesis was as a virus which exploits the human tendency to reject cognitive dissonance. Because the listener has already “agreed” with the statement, he is less likely to raise an objection later. Presumably listeners noticed that sentences using this trick were rhetorically effective so the they helped propagate the virus by using it themselves. All subconscious, of course.

Brilliant, Professor! I have no idea if there’s any truth to the transition from particle physics to solid-state physics to neuroscience. I don’t care. The very idea is entrancing.

I should also point out that it long been common among British people to begin a sentence with Right, the way Americans sometimes use OK—essentially, “Right, we have reached a common understanding on the last point, now on to the next bit.”

A cool painting by Michel Balasis
A cool painting by Michel Balasis
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Even as statement-ending right has spread virally among professors, a very different use of the word has been taken up by our students. I first became aware of it five or six years ago in the form Yeah, right. I digress to say that this was the favorite sarcastic retort of my youth, and also the punchline to a piece of classic academic humor. The joke’s setup is that at a linguistics conference, the speaker says, “In many languages, one finds the double negative used to indicate a positive. But there are no languages in which a double positive is used to indicate a negative.” At which point someone in the back of the room stands up and says, "...”

Anyway, this new use of the phrase had no sarcasm: It was in fact a double positive!

First student: That party was lame.

Second student (agreeing): Yeah, right?

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The usage evolved into the still extremely popular I know, right?, frequently abbreviated as, merely, Right? As far as I know, this locution has not been discussed at any linguistics conferences. It should be, however, because of its unusual status as a sort of (yes, I know I said sort of) answer tag. I am unaware of anyone responding to statements they agreed with with eh?, innit?, n’am say’n? or n’est-ce pas?, so this may be a legitimately new thing.

My daughter Maria sometimes says that everything originated in Mean Girls, by which she means that it is the source of every expression or intonation girls have adopted since 2004, when the film, which was written and directed by Tina Fey, came out. Exhibit A is I know, right? Regina (Rachel McAdams), the leader of “the plastics,” uses it incessantly, including to anticipate a reaction of the person she’s talking to: “Let me tell you something about Janis Ian. We were best friends in middle school. I know, right? It’s so embarrassing.”

However, as various online discussions of the origin of the phrase (I told you you can find anything on the Internet) point out, Urban Dictionary’s earliest definition (“an expression of agreement ... this is big in Atlanta, Georgia, for whatever reason”) was posted in March 2003, a year before Mean Girls came out.

I am here to announce that I can beat that by nearly two and a half years. Tina Fey herself used (and presumably wrote) I know, right? in a Saturday Night Live Weekend Update segment right after the 2000 presidential election. She adopted a middle-school-girl persona in recounting the Election Night back-and-forth between George Bush and Al Gore.

Fey: Bush said, ‘You conceded. No take-backs. No do-overs.’ And Gore was like, ‘I had my fingers crossed.’ Bush was all like, ‘I’m not trying to hear that, see.’ And Gore was like, ‘Oh no you didn’t.’ Then Gore hung up and Bush totally Star 69’ed him and was like, ‘I know where you’re at. I got your number on my Caller ID.’ And now, Jimmy, they’re like not speaking, which is so awkward for me, ‘cause I’m friends with both of them.”

Jimmy Fallon: “That is so unfair of them to put you in that position.”

Fey: “I know, right?”

I await an earlier citation. In the meantime, I close with a shrewd unpacking of the meaning of I know, right? posted recently by Nick Pritzker on one of those online discussions of the phrase’s origin:

“you are not telling me a fact I don’t already know, and there is a meaning in, or implication to this fact which I understand and I believe you do too. We are on the same page, and so it seems that we have a bond and don’t have to worry that one of us is actually thinking for himself/herself, god forbid.”