The cover of the Pet Shop Boys album “Actually”.
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“Actually” is the most futile, overused word on the internet

Whereas “basically” and “well” are relatively harmless tics that crowd our sentences, “actually” has an attitude.

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For a 2000 paper titledActually and other markers of an apparent discrepancy between propositional attitudes of conversational partners,” linguists Sara Smith and Andreas Jucker studied the conversational use of the word actually among friends and strangers at the University of California Long Beach. The researchers wanted to better understand “discourse markers”: words or phrases that help organise our speech and writing, but which aren’t essential to a sentence’s meaning.

Examples of discourse markers include well, nonetheless, like, basically, I mean, okay. But Smith and Jucker were primarily interested in actually, and in ten hours of recorded conversations among students they counted 78 uses of the word as a discourse marker. Smith, a professor of linguistics at UCLB, said she and her colleague presumed actually would be used to disprove facts, but instead the speakers most often used the word to discount attitudes or opinions.

Whereas basically and well are relatively harmless tics that crowd our sentences, actually has an attitude. Consider this recent headline from Business Insider: “Women in Tech Actually Don’t Get Paid Less Than Men.” Or Maureen Dowd’s defence of Barack Obama after Sarah Palin accused him of “wearing mom jeans”: “Actually, the jeans the president wore in the Oval Office, talking to Putin on the phone last weekend, looked good.”

Especially on the internet, a platform where everyone is trying to stake an intellectual claim in comments sections or on Twitter, actually often expresses a very specific attitude: condescension. Salon contributor Roxane Gay, a writing professor at Eastern Illinois University, told me in an email, “When people use the word actually in many contexts, they are implying that they have exclusive access to a font of incontrovertible knowledge. When they actually you, they are offering you a gift.” 

To find an example, Gay need look no further than the comments on her own articles. In a recent piece about the sexual abuse allegations against Woody Allen, commenter Rrhain wrote, “Mia actually encouraged the two to spend time together when Soon-Yi was an adult. What other facts are you unaware of?” Asked who is fond of actuallying her, Gay said that it’s “mostly men who are deeply passionate about ‘truth’ and ‘fairness’ and justice’.”

Uttering (or typing) actually at another person in pursuit of truth, fairness, and justice is a relatively new phenomenon. Google’s Ngram Viewer, which charts the historical use of words and phrases in books, shows that printed use of actually has climbed steadily over the last two centuries. There’s a caveat: this includes all uses of the word, not just in the grammatical instances being discussed here. But consider that its more pointed counterpart, well actually – which is most often used in such instanceshas seen an extreme rise since the 1980s.

Examples of discourse markers include well, nonetheless, like, basically, I mean, okay. But Smith and Jucker were primarily interested in actually, and in ten hours of recorded conversations among students they counted 78 uses of the word as a discourse marker. Smith, a professor of linguistics at UCLB, said she and her colleague presumed actually would be used to disprove facts, but instead the speakers most often used the word to discount attitudes or opinions.

Studies show that younger people are far more likely to use actually. From 2003-2004, linguist Cathleen Waters weighed data from a 1.7 million-word corpus of spoken English from Toronto, Canada, and found a steady increase in the word as age decreases. With the information collected from sociolinguistic interviews with 115 speakers, Waters published a 2008 paper called Actually, it’s more than pragmatics, it’s really grammaticalisation.”

She found that the median rate of the use of actually among speakers ages 70-92 was 0.4 times per 1,000 words. In contrast, it was more than 1.5 times per 1,000 words for those between 18-39.

Source: Cathleen Waters

According to Waters, speakers between the ages of 18-30 use actually at an even higher rate than the 18-39 age group: an average rate of 2.24 occurrences per 1,000 words. Waters believes this is because actually has replaced older phrases like indeed and in fact through a gradual linguistic process called grammaticalisation, wherein once-novel words become part of a speaker’s register. The Ngram Viewer backs up that argument:

Actually’s popularity seems only to have increased since 2008, when Waters’ essay was published. It’s become especially popular in partisan battles over issues ranging from Obamacare to gun control. “I think the term actually is thought to be [used by] a group that trolls Twitter as fact-checkers, but in fact that’s not always the way it’s used,” said Kira Hall, professor of Linguistics and Anthropology at University of Colorado Boulder. “And if it is, fact-checking is happening from conservative to liberal stances as well as from liberal to conservative stances.” Consider this Slate headline from earlier this year: “Actually, Electric Cars Are good for the planet.” Or this one from The Weekly Standard: “Actually, Hamas Killed the Palestinian Baby.” Or this one from The New Republic: “Actually, You Can’t Just ‘Restore’ Cancelled Health Plans.”

The use of actually has become so common, in fact, that it has become the source of humor and satire. Usage varies, but tweets bearing the hashtag #actually often aren’t factual challenges but rather jokes about the petty overuse of the word itself.

The #WellActually hashtag, meanwhile, serves a different purpose: to mock or criticise Twitter users who are fond of using “Well, actually…” in picking fights.

Well, Kate Losse, here’s your thinkpiece – and it’s as good a sign as any that it’s time to retire actually. The word has become so ubiquitous, and so abused, that its use barely registers a sting anymore. Before long, like literally before it, actually may lose its meaning altogether. Jessica Luther, a writer and prolific Twitter user whose position on reproductive rights has drawn quite a few actuallys, summed it perfectly for me: “It’s one of those words you see and you know you’re not going anywhere productive afterwards.”

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Anti-semitism and the left: something is rotten in the state of Labour

Labour held three separate inquiries into anti-Semitism within its ranks during the first part of 2016. A new book by Dave Rich investigates how we got to this point.

The relationship between the left and the Jews has always been a complex one – ostensibly harmonious but with an underlying unease. For decades, the left’s ideological stance against racism and intolerance made it – in Britain, at least – a natural home for Jews. Its largest party, Labour, could rely on a majority share of Britain’s Jewish vote. Yet the 19th-century German socialist August Bebel, who described anti-Semitism as “the socialism of fools”, understood that, like a tumour, it has always existed in the left-wing body politic.

It is this duality that Dave Rich seeks to explore in his impressive and important book. How, he asks, did we get to the situation in which Labour, the party whose founding principles include opposing bigotry, felt the need to hold three separate inquiries into anti-Semitism within its ranks during the first part of 2016?

For so long, the dichotomy was simple, consisting of a clash of two notions of the Jew: an oppressed figure deserving of the left’s solidarity and the perennial embodiment of socialism’s great enemy, capitalism. In the words of (the Jewish) Karl Marx:


What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money . . . Money is the jealous god of Israel, in face of which no other god may exist. Money degrades all the gods of man – and turns them into commodities . . . The bill of exchange is the real god of the Jew.


Whether or not Marx meant the words ironically (as many academics contend), he articulated the most prominent leftist critique of Jews of his time. However, as Britain’s former chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks has argued, anti-Semitism, like any virus, must mutate to survive. Now the most significant word in the quotation above – which Marx uses figuratively – is not “money”, as he would have seen it, but “Israel”.

As Rich notes, the link between British Jews and Israel is almost inviolable. While support for Israeli policies is mixed (there is much opposition to the settlements), he records that 82 per cent of British Jews say that the country plays a central role in their identity, while 90 per cent see it as the ancestral home of the Jewish people. Set against this is his (correct) observation that: “Sympathy for the Palestinian cause and opposition to Israel have become the default position for many on the left – a defining marker of what it means to be progressive.” He argues that once you discover what someone on the left thinks about Israel and Zionism, you can usually guess his or her views on terrorism, Islamist extremism, military intervention and British-American relations.

When Stalin’s show trials and bloodlust finally discredited communism, many on the left, bereft of an ideology, fell into a dull, almost perfunctory anti-Americanism, dressed up as “anti-imperialism”. Intellectually flaccid but emotionally charged, this strand of thought became – to those on the hard left who had for so long been confined to the margins – all-encompassing. The dictum “My enemy’s enemy is my friend”, in effect, was adopted as its slogan. Any Middle Eastern or South American dictatorship that “stands up” to the US ipso facto is an ally, as is any Islamist hate preacher who does so. Israel, viewed as a US-backed colonial outpost, became the physical manifestation of all that was wrong with the world.

With Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader last year, this particular leftist world-view entered the heart of the party. In 2008, Corbyn wrote of the Balfour Declaration – the UK government’s promise to British Jews of a homeland in Palestine – that it had “led to the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 and the expulsion of Palestinians . . . Britain’s history of colonial interference . . . leaves it with much to answer for.” The description of Israel as a colonialist enterprise, rather than a movement for sovereignty through national independence, and the culpability of an “imperial” Britain, encapsulate the twin impulses that drive Corbyn’s beliefs about foreign affairs.

The problem, Rich argues, is that it is just a short step from these beliefs to the ideas that Israel should not exist and that its Western supporters, who include most Jews, are racists. Combined with a resurgence of social media-charged conspiracies about Zionist wealth and power, the left has formed an anti-racist politics that is blind to anti-Semitism. Jews are privileged; they are wealthy; they cannot be victims.

Thus, “Zionist” has become not a term to describe a political position but an insult; thus, Jews, unless they denounce Israel (their “original sin”), are excluded from the left that now dominates the Labour Party. When such ideas become normalised, anything is possible. Jackie Walker, the recently suspended vice-chairwoman of the Corbyn-supporting group Momentum, can claim with sincerity that “many Jews” were the “chief financiers” of the slave trade, a modern myth and piece of bigotry popularised by the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan – a notorious anti-Semite – in a 1991 book.

By the middle of this year, as many as 20 Labour Party members had been suspended or expelled for alleged anti-Semitism. At times, Rich appears bewildered. Though he never articulates it, the question “What has happened to my party?” echoes through these pages. Is it a case of just a few bad ­apples, or is the whole barrelful rotten? The answer, Rich concludes convincingly, in this powerful work that should be read by everyone on the left, is sadly the latter. 

The Left’s Jewish Problem by Dave Rich is published by Biteback, 292pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood