What are they on about?

14th September 2001 at 01:00
David Newnham used to be absolutely, well, right, yeah? Not any more

Bear with me for a second or two while I conduct a small experiment. Are you ready? Then we'll begin.

Imagine that you are talking with a colleague about the prices charged at the local swimming pool. "When you're paying that amount," she says, "you feel obliged to stay all afternoon."

Now you entirely agree with this. So what do you say to her? "Yes, I entirely agree with you"? It's possible, I suppose.

But these days, more and more people finding themselves in such a situation are responding with a single word: "Exactly".

Are you one of those people? Perhaps you are. But I'm willing to bet that this time last year, you would not have dreamed of using "exactly". You might have hazarded an "absolutely", a "right" or a feeble "yeah". But "exactly"? I don't think so.

It was about a year ago that I first encountered an "exactly", and I can recall having mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, it seemed I'd said precisely the right thing. I'd scored a bull's-eye. But on the other hand, wasn't I being patronised just a little bit?

Exactly. My point entirely. You've finally caught up with what I've been saying all along. For a minute there, I thought you weren't ever going to get it. But the penny's finally dropped. And although you couldn't possibly know it, what you just said was not only right but precisely right. . . And so on.

In the months that followed, I began to notice more and more people using this double-edged riposte. Where had it come from? Was there some really obvious source - a character in ER or Friends or The Sopranos?

I had been caught out like this before. I once complimented a friend on his line in witty repartee, only to be told that he was merely re-enacting Harry Enfield sketches. Had Harry Enfield got us using "exactly"?

In the end, I phoned the person from whose mouth I had first heard it. "Am I missing something?" I asked her, "or could it be that this is simply a word whose time has come?" You know her reply, of course. She simply said: "Exactly". And for some reason, I felt incredibly silly.

newnham@danecroft.demon.co.uk

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