“Bacon will totally kill you.”
Last March, the popular website Jezebel posted that headline. Did the article go on to explain that bacon will completely kill you, that after bacon has had its crispy way with you there will be no part of you left living? No, here totally acts as an intensifier, possibly translating to “definitely,” but definitely conveying the passion behind the sentiment bacon + you = death. As such, totally is often emphasized in speech: Bacon will TOTALLY kill you.
This new meaning of totally is not, it would seem, so new after all: it made an appearance more than three decades ago in the horror film Halloween (“You totally never showed up!”) Today, as New York University linguist Patricia Irwin notes, totally as an intensifier is so established in the lexicon that it even has its own abbreviation, totes. Yes, the editorial team at Jezebel could have gone with Bacon will totes kill you and not have befuddled its readership in the least. (At least to my ear, totally in its “completely” sense cannot be shortened in this manner: a sentence like Make sure the bacon is totes cooked through doesn’t work.)
According to Irwin, totally may have entrenched itself in the English language in another, even more interesting way: it may underlie the dramatic so. Now so, like totally, has a number of senses. It can act as a connective (Let’s buy a couch so we have somewhere to sit), a pronoun (I think so), or a calm, thoughtful rebuttal (You think you don’t have cooties? You DO SO have cooties!). For some speakers, so can even be used as a quotative to introduce speech or a performance (He’s so, “I’m a vegetarian!”)
Relevant to the topic at hand, so can also be used to modify other modifiers (generally adjectives or adverbs like hungry or quickly) that are gradient, which is to say they can range from not very to very. So in this sense, of course, covers the very end of the spectrum: I’m so hungry right now. But dramatic so (or Drama SO, as Irwin terms it) behaves a bit differently. Take, for instance, the title of the 2004 film You Are So Going to Hell, or a recent Forbes article entitled “‘Going Green’ Is So Last Season,” or any of Arnold Zwicky’s excellent examples. “Going to hell” and “last season” cannot be traditionally modified by so. They’re not gradient; they’re not really even modifiers.
Where did dramatic so originate? Here’s where totally comes in. Irwin suggests that after each dramatic so is an implicit totally. We have, therefore, “‘Going green’ is so totally last season” or “You Are So Totally Going to Hell,” only totally can now be dropped and so emphasized in its place. It’s an intriguing argument, and she uses it to interpret a number of usage nuances (which you can peruse on her website, where she’s posted a draft of her article in full).
It also leads to the unintuitive conclusion that dramatic so isn’t so special. It’s just an ordinary modifier covering for a deadbeat adverb.