Help me with my next book! Small words

I am moving this PS to the top, as I want to be sure it's read!

P.S. I'm happy for everyone to discuss what they're interested in in the comments, but I should emphasi{s/z}e (before I waste anyone's time!) that what I"m looking for are specific anecdotes and witty quotations (etc.) to give  'colo(u)r' to the discussion. I already know what aspects of language the book covers and the relevance of the fields I've mentioned to those aspects. I can't promise that anything offered will be used in the book, but I will be grateful for any stories/quotations/etc. offered.

Please do so in the comments here and not on email, unless there are privacy issues to consider with regard to the story. It's much easier for me to keep track of things if they're all together here.


I hope you will indulge me in an off-SbaCL-topic post. More than that, I hope you will keep me and this post in mind as you go through your days. 

Here's the deal. I'm writing another general-audience (rather than academic) book. It's rather different from The Prodigal Tongue—still about language (and mostly the English language), but without much in the way of nationalism-bashing. Its working title is Small Words and I am so, so fortunate to again have the support of a National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar Award, which gives me time away from my day job to research and write intensively. (This is not a small thing during pandemic times when the day job is 1039% more insane. I thank my colleagues for bearing my absence with such generosity.)

For the purposes of the book, members of the category small words are:

  • linguistic elements that do things rather than mean things 
    • Another way to put this: words with non-referential meaning. They don't "point out" objects or actions or properties in reality or imagination.
    • This includes function words (aka grammatical words, like the and or and in and it and is) and many interjections (like ow or oh or hi or yes).
  • words that have three or fewer phonemes (speech sounds)
    • This often coincides with having three or fewer letters (a, of, the), but not necessarily (that, with, through).

The idea is that there are lots of books that celebrate rare words, big words, dialectal words, forgotten

P.S. I'm happy for everyone to discuss what they're interested in in the comments, but I should emphasi{s/z}e (before I waste anyone's time!) that what I"m looking for are specific anecdotes and witty quotations (etc.) to give  'colo(u)r' to the discussion. I already know what aspects of language the book covers and the relevance of the above fields to those aspects. I can't promise that anything offered will be used in the book, but I will be grateful for any stories/quotations/etc. offered.
words. Some claim to be about words you should know. I want to celebrate the words you already  people take for granted, because they tell us an awful lot about history, psychology, social relations, thinking processes...in other words, what it means to have a human mind and a human language.

Many areas of life and work are particularly sensitive to the small words. I can think of lots of people I'd want to interview for the book (and some I already have). In alphabetical order, they include:

  • comedians
  • computer/information scientists
  • editors of various kinds
  • English literature teachers/critics
  • journalists
  • lawyers
  • language (especially English) learners
  • language teachers
  • lexicographers 
  • literacy or (BrE) oracy/(AmE) speech teachers
  • neurologists —and their clients (and their clients' family support)
  • philosophers
  • poets and prose stylists
  • pollsters
  • psychologists
  • psychotherapists
  • Scrabble players—and other word-game aficionados
  • social scientists of various types
  • speech and language therapists —and their clients  (and their clients' family support)
  • translators and interpreters

I'm particularly looking for interesting anecdotes —personal or historical— that hinge on a small-word usage, misunderstanding, argument, insight, etc. 

These are the types of things that serendipity brings me when I'm reading an interesting passage in a  politician's diary, hearing a bit in a stand-up show, or noticing a line in an advertisement. This week I noticed Henrietta Pussycat's use of meow as a "small word". That helped me explain some statistical 'laws' of language. The "hooks" that I can use to explain the science of small words come to me from many avenues. 

I feel very lucky when I run across these things, because the are scattered so far and wide. But, to paraphrase the old adage "the harder I work, the luckier I get", the more I ask for interesting stories, the luckier I am in finding them.

So, please keep me in mind as you go through your days, read your books, watch your entertainment. If you come across quotations, arguments, marvellings, anecdotes about small words, could you drop me a line? If you know of non-academic folk who really should be interviewed about their relationships with small words, let me know. The best way to do that would be to leave a comment at this blog post, where I'll be able to dip back and find what people have sent me. If the information needs to be presented more anonymously, then email works.

This has been my cry for help! Thanks for reading! I'll leave you with this thought about smallness from Bertrand Russell:

There is no need to worship mere size. […] Sir Isaac Newton was very much smaller than a hippopotamus, but we do not on that account value him less.



62 comments

  1. I find "that" a fascinating word. I have known people who insist it should always be included in reported speech clauses, for example "she said that she would be catching the next train", whereas to me "she said she would be catching the next train" is natural and unambiguous, so the sentence does not need that. However, in the sentence "He said that on this occasion he did not mind" DOES become ambiguous if you remove the "that" - "he said on this occasion he did not mind" leaves open what he might have said, or minded, on other occasions.

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    1. Do they nevertheless insist that that "that" is necessary, Martyn?

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  2. In my time as the editor for a technical journal, one of my most memorable discussions related to the existence of a comma in 1024. According to our house style, a number with more than three digits should be comma-separated in groups of three. Naturally, the sub marked my copy to change to 1,024. To a computer scientist, the seemingly subtle addition of a helpful comma completely changes the meaning of these four digits. With the comma, 1,024 is a meaningless number that comes after 1,023 and before 1,025. But 1024 is a magical number deeply rooted in the binary logic of computer systems. It is the number 2 raised to the power of ten. It is an element of the number series that computer scientists know as well as their own names (0, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024, and so on). If you studied in the 1980s, a kilobyte contains 1024 bytes, but most modern vendors use the SI definition of the kilobyte, which is 1000 bytes. The sub won that particular argument, but when the paper came back from the authors, they wanted me to remove the offending comma. I did. Highly perplexed, the sub asked me how I knew. In the moment, I found it hard to explain the transformation in meaning that a simple comma could make.

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    1. This reminds me of the example in the sequence "July second", "July third", "Fourth of July", "July fifth" etc, changing into the format points out a change of status of an item in a sequence.

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  3. I'm glad that you're including computer scientists in this. I don't have any one to suggest, but I think that you'd find that many computer languages use a lot of what you'd call small words (FOR, DO, FROM, BY, IF, etc) as part of their syntax to ensure precision and clarity. Sure, the usages are limited, but they are chosen precisely for the lack of ambiguity.

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    1. Interesting also that the standard English small words aren't quite up to the job, so the computer scientists had to invent extra ones, like 'iff' (= if and only if) and 'xor' (= one or the other but not both).

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  4. I'm not sure if this fits your criteria, but the word 'like' is used, like, all the time. I don't know why it has, like, permeated our speech but my goodness it's annoying.

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  5. You know I'm a fan of the so-called "meaningless" items (um, er, uh, like, why, etc.) which are in fact, as I know you know, not meaningless at all. Here's a fun game: take a passage of transcribed or composed speech, and replace any of these items that occur in it with any other one, and watch how the import and effect changes.

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    1. You know I am too, Georgia. I hope you'll like the book!

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  6. I became very interested in the difference between "of" and "from" after a conversation with a boss who spoke English as a second language. He kept insisting that "Project A is a part of Project B" and I kept arguing that they were two separate things, until I finally remembered he often confused "of" and "from" and realized that he meant to say "Project A is apart from Project B". Usually, this mix-up just leads to slightly awkward English as in "I am away of the office", but I thought it was interesting that in this case it ended up sounding like the exact opposite of what he meant.

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  7. How about crossword-puzzle creators?

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    1. Anyone with a story about small words. (I'd count that in the word games category.) But it's the stories I need!

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    2. You might find it interesting that there's an overlap between comedians and cryptic crossword setters. Dave Gorman's been setting for the Independent for a few months, and there's at least one other for another paper, but I forget who.

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    3. I don't think John Finnemore is a regular setter but he has set two very clever puzzles under the pseudonym 'Emu' (short word that!) for the notoriously fiendish Listener puzzle in The Times.

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  8. 'A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.' (Henry David Thoreau) Sage advice for good mental health and avoiding 'big words'

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  9. Geoff Pullum tells an anecdote about how a friendship was destroyed by a single use of the word just, a "tiny, unstressed, monosyllabic modifier":
    Archived link to Lingua Franca (the Lingua Franca blog is offline, but luckily some of the posts were captured by archive.org)

    (Hmm, just has four phonemes, or even five if you count /dʒ/ as two, but it still seems like a small word to me: hard to pin down, wide range of meanings, tends to be used and understood without conscious analysis.)

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    1. Thanks--yes, I'll break the '3 phonemes' rule from time to time, but also I can make comparisons to smaller words...

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    2. I worked with someone in college who hated the word "just." He was technical director of my college's theatre department, and directors and designers would make unrealistic requests (like sets that didn't obey gravity or other laws of physics), and when he tried to explain why their requests couldn't be followed, they would always say, "well, can't we just . . . " He would always say that any suggestion that starts "can't we just . . ." means the person doesn't understand.

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    3. As a theater technical director, a million times yes. The dreaded "But what if it just..." or "But if you just..." Such a complicated relationship between miracle making and downplaying your task wrapped in such a small word

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  10. A colleague from India once checked with me (AmE) on whether he'd got the difference between "there are few benefits" and "there are a few benefits" right (or "there is little benefit" vs. "there is a little benefit"). He did — he'd learned it from EFL books — but it left me wondering how *I* knew it! It certainly was never taught to me in any English class.

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  11. I'm a retired professor of English Language, and for many years worked in Italy (where I now live). Students of EFL have terrible problems with small words. Whoops... yuk... bah... In many cases their bilingual dictionaries don't help.
    I hope I can contribute to this - it's fascinating and I'll buy the book anyway.

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    1. If you have any specific examples or funny anecdotes, I welcome them.

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  12. I blog about words, nowhere near your level, I am more at the elementary school level. Here is a link to one of my blogs: http://www.wordrefiner.com/blog-words-for-thought/bar-car-ear-far-gar-jar-mar-oar-par-tar-war-yar-typos-hurt-your-writing We can talk more if you would like.

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  13. I actually have 3 stories.

    1) You never know how regional "filler words" (um, like, oops) are until you walk by a class of ESL learners or young children and are able to identify who belongs to whom by the expressions they use. My students always used the expression "oops" a lot and later on my small kids used the expression "oopsy." I never realized how often I used this (or how many mistakes I made in a day that they all picked that up in their speech).

    2) In Costa Rica, we used to give an oral proficiency test called "the John Test" in which we showed pictures and asked students to describe the picture. One of the pictures was a man with his hands in his pockets. Often, we would get the false cognate of "balls" (pocket is bolsa in Costa Rican Spanish) and students would say "in his balls." But one person told a colleague "on his balls." Amazing how one preposition makes it sound "foreign" where as another is spot on.

    3) I recently texted my son about an article I had just had published and his reply was "ah okay." I was a bit insulted because he himself is currently studying for a Phd and knows it was a bit of a big deal. When I texted him back calling him on this, his reply was, "Like ahhhhhh cool, let me read it." (I'm not sure I buy that but...). But Ah can mean so much in spoken speech that doesn't come through in written speech.

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    1. And then you get the Michigan-specific 'ope', which even shows up in an Eminem song: "ope, there goes gravity".

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    2. Reminds me of the joke about a linguist telling their audience how it's so interesting that the double negative has no corresponding double positive. Response from the back: yeah yeah...

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    3. Some notes on filler words: I've definitely noticed that using these correctly is a big "tell" for whether someone is a fluent/native speaker. In French you have to say "eugh" or something like that, and even fluent French sounds weird with English "ums" and "uhs". Similarly Japanese uses "eh" and "toh".

      Some time ago, I learned that "uh" and "um" have different semantic meanings in English, and found myself being very self-conscious of them.

      One possible connection with your last book: I'm told that "er" in UK English is pronounced "uh"...is that so? I feel like even some Americans say "er" in certain contexts...

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  14. I don't know if this qualifies as an anecdote, but one thing that bothers and puzzles me is why my daughter's generation (she's 23) has decided that X is no longer based on Y, it's now based off of Y. I think there may be a sea change (in the U.S., anyway) going on with verb phrases that once used the preposition on switching to off or off of -- for instance, I believe I've also seen instances of capitalize on being changed to capitalize off or capitalize off of. It vexes me.

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  15. Oh, and while I'm at it, there's whoa being converted to woah. Ridiculous that such a trivial change for such a trivial word should bother me, but it does.

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  16. This might be totally left field of what you're going for, but I've found it really interesting to see the differences in "small words" in sign language vs English. I'm just an ASL learner so a native signer/expert would be a better source, but there are different words or gestures that may fall under "small" (my first thought is the question mark wiggle) and a *lot* of small words in spoken English don't have a sign in ASL (e.g. "the").

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    1. For me, a language teacher, the most difficult part of teaching is there are multiple words for one term in the first language. I taught English to Spanish speakers and explaining the difference between say and tell took a lot of linguistic analysis on my part. And it was not part of any language books. Learning german, the role that articles play to identify the part of speech for a noun is hard to comprehend since English uses placement and even using an article (or not using an article) to help in the meaning (I got around this in French by always speaking in plurals because their plural version is the same regardless of gender). It is difficult for me to explain (or even understand at times the nuances) the two verbs "to be" in Spanish (ser and estar).

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  17. Off the top of my head, although it's not super interesting, in my office (humanities academic publishing), there's a controversy about whether author biographies should say "John Doe is professor at . . ." or "John Doe is a professor at . . ."

    I slightly prefer the latter, but the former seems to be more preferred by my fellow editors.

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    1. isn't it just that you leave out 'a' when citing the title of a post. SO:

      John Doe is a [Linguistics] professor at ...
      John Doe is Professor of Linguistics at ...

      That's what sounds right to me just going by ear.

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  18. Lynne, Off topic, but the comment submission no longer seems to give the option to get notified by email of replies. Is that a Blogger change?

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    1. My page has a tick box marked "Notify me" at bottom right, above the words "Older Post".

      I had a problem recently trying to post a comment on another post. After checking the comment using "Preview" (and perhaps "edit" thereafter), I couldn't post. I kept getting some message about embedding in other pages. Even if I closed the page and opened it again , the comment was still in the box and gave that error if I clicked "Publish". I gave up in the end.

      As for the mobile implementation, it's been the case for over a year now that if I try and post a comment, I'm asked to sign in to Google, then returned to the comment page with my comment gone, but still signed in to Google, something that may not be obvious till you notice it much later, when doing a search, say, and realise Google has been noting everything you do since it fucked up comment processing.

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  19. My favorite small word is "Uff da," a Norwegian expression freighted with many emotions. Literally, it means, "Oh, there!" Used primarily by people of Scandinavian origin, or people who live in the upper Midwest, to express chagrin, surprise, consternation, and similar emotions, or for unpleasant, uncomfortable, hurtful, annoying, sad, or irritating situations. Uff da is most often used as a response when hearing something lamentable (but not too serious), and could often be translated as "Oh, I'm sorry to hear that." We can always tell if someone is of that heritage or from that geographic region, if he or she exclaims, "Uffda!" When a friend of Scandinavian heritage moved to Minnesota from California and worked in a high-tech office, on her first day, she heard someone exclaim "Uffda!" and she knew she was at home in the right place. There are many products using "Uffda," from license plates to coffee mugs and cross-stitch samplers. It's a great expression to use, and is sometimes shorted to just "Uff!"

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    1. To my BrE ear, Margo's shortened "Uff!" would signify a third person's reaction to a catty or sarcastic putdown delivered to by a first to a second person. A vocalisation which says, in part, "wow, that was a bit scathing" while at the same time applauding the accuracy/appropriateness/skill of the putdown.

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    2. I'm not a native speaker of "uff da," but I used to live adjacent to the parts of the upper midwest where that's common, and my sense is that "oof" is much more widespread and not the same as "uff da." I mean, maybe historically they're related, but it never would've occurred to me to think of them as the same thing.

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    3. Margo, you have made my day! I am a native speaker of Uffda, but I never knew what it actually meant in Norwegian!

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  20. As an editor (AmE, retired this year) I was continually waging war against the false economy of leaving out small words. The most memorable example: "Schedule first to be sacrificed." As written, it seemed to say, "If you want to be sacrificed, be the first to create a schedule." It was probably in a bullet list, which accounts for it not being a sentence. Small words plus "thing" made it clear: "The schedule is the first thing to be sacrificed."

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  21. Congrats on the NEH grant! They are super and kept me in ramen noodles for a whole summer while I was in law school. This sounds like a great project. I do insurance law now and while it's incredibly boring to normal people, small words take on great significance when it comes to what an insurance policy does and doesn't cover. For instance, the difference between a policy that uses the language "an insured" vs. "the insured" in terms of how a loss might be covered is mind-bogglingly vast. My firm just handled a significant (and somewhat tragic) case involving the meaning of this distinction. I'm sure I've got other examples but would be happy to help. I've really enjoyed your blog over the years.

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  22. My memory is rusty, but were not "to" and "by" important words in traditional book-keeping?

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  23. Wonderful idea for a book, and enjoyed reading both your original posting and the subsequent comments. I don't know if any of the following fall within the scope of the book, but perhaps they are useful:

    One word v. two words, the difference being the white space between the two words. When spoken the native English speaker easily differentiates between the two based on context. One example is from the old gag, when is a door not a door? The answer: when it is ajar.

    Two pairs of words, spelled differently with different syllabification, but when spoken with relaxed pronunciation sound identical. Example: gross receipts v. grocery seats

    Two words, spelled identically but with different meanings, having different pronunciations and when written the pronunciation is determined only by capitalization: polish v. Polish

    Two words, spelled the same, but with different meanings and being different parts of speech (I believe usually noun v. verb), pronounced with different syllable emphasis: COMbat v comBAT

    Two words, with opposite meanings and different spellings, pronounced identically: raise v. raze


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    1. Regarding "Polish/polish", my Father did his National Service in the RAF, which included a number of Free Polish pilots, and one of the jokes played on the new recruits was to send them to the Polish Liaison Officer for some boot polish. Apparently he was not amused the first time, never mind the 20th...

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  24. Thanks for all your comments, everyone! For some reason, I missed a bunch of Blogger notifications about them, so they all came at once. I'll be keeping these things in mind as I work in the next few months!

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  25. There’s a commercial currently on TV here in Britain for Daz detergent - a happy family dancing around in clean colourful clothes - followed by a voice saying: ‘always keep away from children’.
    The missing ‘it’ would be pedantic, I suppose ....

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  26. I work as a script supervisor in film/tv and small words make a big difference to screenwriters and actors. One example I use often was one of my first script supervising gigs. The director was German, working with an English script. It was a modest budget production and the script called for a dog in several of the scenes. As they couldn't afford a properly trained 'stunt dog', the team resorted to using two very well behaved German shepherds who were owned by members of the producer's extended family - one female, and another male... and obviously they have 'visible' differences between them. There was a line in the script about the dog, something like "will you make sure he's been fed please?", the director, fearing he had caught the underside of both male and female dogs and not sure which one he would want to commit to in the edit, suggested we change the line to "will you make sure it's been fed please?"...which, obviously, implies a huge difference in the way in which the character relates to the dog. Simply by denying 'it's' gender, it feels as though they are kind of 'de-anthropormorphising?' and therefore implies the character loved the dog less than they needed to for the story to work.

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    1. The cute animal YouTube channel "The Dodo" open titles all of the dialog in their videos, and, if someone refers to an animal as "it," they make a bracketed editorial correction to "he" or "she" in the open titles. I can't find an example (which probably speaks to how common it is to use "he" and "she" for animals in English), but it would be something like this made-up example.

      Actual spoken words:
      "I found this cat behind a dumpster. It was scared and ran from me."

      Open titles:
      "I found this cat behind a dumpster. [She] was scared and ran from me."

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  27. 'Too' as a modal particle.

    1. AmE, understood but not used in Britain: contradiction. "That is so girly." "It is not." "It is too." I am fairly certain that this is a Germanism ("doch" can have exactly that meaning).

    2. BrE: emphatic agreement. "What a hideous building." "It is, too." (Also, "It is and all.")

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  28. You might consider "yes" and "no" as words that have complex and not obvious histories.

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  29. BrE, 60+. A small word that intrigues me a great deal is “even”.
    I didn’t know her name.
    I didn’t even know her name.
    Definitely an added weigt of sentiment.

    Don’t think about it.
    Don’t even think about it.
    An added weight of warning.

    Don’t go there.
    Don’t even go there.
    I THINK these are different, bur struggle to explain why.

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    1. The use of "even" anywhere and everywhere seems to be widespread among the millennial generation, at least in the US.
      "What does that even mean?"
      An article in Paste magazine I read yesterday: "Why do we even listen to new music?"
      And the ever-popular: "I can't even," used to indicate a frustration too great to describe.
      Often I don't think it adds any meaning -- it's just a place-holder for a meaning the speaker can't be bothered to specify. Of course, you can say that the avoidance of any specific meaning is meaningful, too.

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  30. Up.

    Has anyone notice how "up" is now commonly attached to many verbs, almost similar in manner to a separable prefix verb in German?

    I just heard on a famous (infamous?) British baking competition that the contestants were going to "mix up the cake batter." On the American side of the pond on TV its usage is becoming rampant, along the lines of "heat up", "chop up", "save up for a rainy day" etc. If one can't use the verb with "down" then the up is superfluous.

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    1. Cooking-journalism is plagued by extra little words that add nothing to the meaning. "Off" is another common one.

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  31. I don't think this is new. Certainly not in the South of England, where I live. Just from gut feeling, I think the "up" is an intensifier of some sort.

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  32. Are you still gathering anecdotal referents?

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    1. Yes, I welcome anecdotes and other bits of 'colo(u)r'.

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AmE = American English
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