The Rise and Possible Fall of the Word Well

July 19, 2017


If you're old enough to rust, you might remember one of the first Kings of Comedy, Benjamin Kubelsky better known as Jack Benny. During his radio show, Benny became famous for playing the violin badly and his single word response, "Well!" It wasn't that the vaudevillian comedian used the word to begin a sentence, it was the sentence. Like many Asian languages, his intonation added meaning to his statement. Used in the traditional sense, well is most often an adverb that modifies a verb by telling "how". However, as a modifier, the word "Well" can be used as a predicate adjective. For example, "Bob was sick, but now he is well."

In a recent article on the language of our 45th President, associate teaching professor at Georgetown University's Department of Linguistics, Jennifer Sclafani, pointed to the fact that Donald Trump virtually never began a response to a question with the word "Well". The author of a book due out later this year contends that this may have played a major role in his success as a political candidate. In retrospect, the linguist may be on to something. So, how have politicians and aspiring political candidates been using the word? It serves as a filler for the vocal gap while the speaker collects his or her thoughts. This anomaly of the English language certainly sounds more intelligent than "ummm" and likely is perceived as more sincere than "I'm glad you asked me that."

It could be argued that beginning a response with the word serves more of a purpose than just filler. After all, it tends to soften the eventual response similar to how President Obama used the term. You knew that Obama's answer was going to be well planned and rather lengthy but well spoken. This is where Sclafani's argues that an overuse of the word by politicians may have tainted the word "Well" and nowadays it is associated with a dishonest or nervous response. As something of a Master of Language in persuading others, Trump might have purposefully avoided the interjection to convey he did not need to think about what he was going to say.

Well... what do you think?

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