IT'S in the hallways at school, in the board rooms of big business, and in the kitchen at home. It's in the Ivy League colleges and in the offices of the White House. ``It is one of the most far-reaching and depressing developments of our time, disfiguring conversation wherever you go,'' says Edwin Newman in his book ``Strictly Speaking.'' It's ... ``y'know.''
Getting rid of the Y'know habit is hard. But, try as I may to suppress the Y'knows, they still sneak into my speech. Sometimes I can go for days without using one. Then, I pause to think and all of a sudden I hear one slip out.
One of my communications professors in college said Y'know is a word we use instead of silence between spoken thoughts. Some Asian languages actually have words to serve as punctuation for those moments. We have Y'know, I Mean, and Like.
I remember when I was a kid we used Like to sound like a beatnik. The word had a certain shock value when it was used like where it shouldn't be used. Maynard G. Krebs on the Dobie Gillis Show used Like a lot. So did us kids. But the Like habit is easy to break. Not so the Y'know.
Y'know is like a weed that quickly grows in the speech of newcomers to English. My mother was born and raised in a German neighborhood in New York City. She used to tell me the immigrants there often punctuated their German conversation with a liberal sprinkling of perfect in-English Y'knows.
I have no doubt it's true. When I was in the Army, I used to eavesdrop on our Puerto Rican draftees to see if I had gotten my money's worth of high school Spanish. I learned two things from doing this. First, four years of high school Spanish doesn't give you the fluency you need to understand the rapid-fire Spanish Puerto Ricans speak. And, second, the only phrase I could pick out without any trouble was the oft-repeated un-Spanish Y'know. And they used it a lot.
The Y'know weed also plagues American speakers of foreign languages. It was not uncommon to hear an occasional vous savez in my third-year French classes in college. It was as natural for us students to say this as it was for our French-speaking teacher to punctuate his English with ``eh.''
In his book ``Word Play,'' Peter Farb says speakers in most languages use inarticulate sounds to fill in the silence between clusters of spoken words. These sounds are usually part of the language. For example, a Russian usually says ``mm nyuh'' and a Japanese who is groping for the right words usually says ``ah noo.'' ``Um'' and ``er'' sufficed as English pause words until sometime recently in the evolution of the language, when Y'know took over.
Newman says Y'know may have begun among America's poor blacks who, deprived of a decent education, often did not speak well. They used Y'know to be sure they were being understood. This folksy origin made other people use Y'know to show how down-to-earth they were. Over the years it spread throughout the language to all social classes. Today you can even hear the President saying it when he formally addresses the nation.
Y'know, you never know.