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TWTS: Intensifiers are so intense

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It's been really dreary and so icy outside lately. It's awfully tempting to wear super cozy clothes and use lots of intensifiers.

But what are intensifiers? They're a subset of adverbs, with the occasional adjective, that appear before adjectives and adverbs.

For example, our listener Alan Haber was very interested in learning about the intensifier “so.” So much so, that Haber sent us a really good question about it.

"I appreciate your programs so much. How much? So much," Haber says. "I don't remember hearing this use (of 'so') years ago, and now it's in every other sentence of appreciation or dimension."

Right now, many of us probably think of "very" and "really" as the most generic intensifiers, but what's most common changes over time.

A 2005 study by Sali Tagliamonte and Chris Roberts at the University of Toronto looked at the use of intensifiers on the television series "Friends." In the study, the authors show that over time, one intensifier gets replaced by another.

Hundreds of years ago, the most common intensifier was "well." That gets replaced by "full," then "full" gets replaced by "right," as in "you're right welcome." By the 16th century, "very" is most common, only to be edged out by "really" in the 18th century.

In the 20th century, "so" starts to overtake "really,” so Haber is right, that we’re hearing more of it. For some folks, “so” might sound informal as an intensifier. However, there are others that sound even more informal, like “super,” as in “super-fast.”

Intensifiers also show up in slang. Think “hella cool,” uber fast,” and “wicked awesome.”

Another listener sent us a question about the intensifiers “awfully” vs. “awful.” Is something “awfully slow,” or is it “awful slow”? To hear our discussion on that, listen to the audio above.

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Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.