Thursday, 19 June 2014

On Tony Blair's 'look'

A correspondent writes to ask if I've done any research into the use of 'look...' or 'well look...' by politicians before going on to explain a point. She's thinking of Tony Blair, in particular, but feels it's become more widespread recently. She interprets it as carrying the pragmatic connotation of 'we're all friends - I'm telling you the truth just like a friend would - I'm one of the people - I know more than you so I can explain this to you - believe me' [her words].

I've noticed Tony Blair's use of this discourse feature, yes, but I don't have an impression that other people are using it any more frequently than it used to be. I haven't studied the matter, but - as always, when questions of this kind come up - a visit to the online OED generally provides some illumination.

There we find (under look v.4, 'idiomatic uses of the imperative') that this feature is as old as Old English. It turns up in Aelfric, and throughout history we see it in a variety of forms, such as look here, look you, look'ee, and looky here, as well as simple look. Shakespeare has 'Look you how he writes' (Henry IV Part 2) and 'Look thee here...' (A Winter's Tale). The tone varies greatly, from affability to annoyance.

The OED definition of look here is interesting - ' a brusque mode of address prefacing an order, expostulation, reprimand, etc' - as this very much relates to the Blair usage. My impression is that he uses look only when he's irritated by the way an interview is going, and wants to restate or amplify a point. He isn't saying to the interlocutor 'we're together on this' but 'you've got me wrong' or 'you're pushing me in the wrong direction'. Take these examples from a Newsnight interview with Jeremy Paxman in 2013 (transcript available online): the tone is moving towards exasperation - explicitly so, in the first instance:

'Oh rubbish. Come on Jeremy, look what do I stand for?'

'I don't know. Look, I am a Christian, I believe in it, but...'

'BLAIR: ... it doesn't inform every political decision I make in a very narrow way. PAXMAN: 
It doesn't? BLAIR:
Look, I'm a person, an individual...'

With a less aggressive interviewer, the looks virtually disappear. Well and you know are his main discourse features. In a 20-minute interview with Sian Williams on the Andrew Marr Show (9 February 2013, also viewable online), he hardly uses look at all. We don't hear one until 9 minutes in, and then it's almost inaudible in the middle of a sentence ('look, it's very hard...'). There are two more medially-placed examples, neither especially prominent, and we don't hear the prominent sentence-initial look until almost the very end of the interview (18 minutes in, when his voice is clearly tiring and the interviewer is still pressing a point). We then get two instances in quick succession. I think he wants the interview to end - and soon after, it does.


John Cowan said...

Spanish-speakers in the US (at least, maybe elsewhere) use mira in the same way.

Liz Potter said...

Another similar feature I have noticed recently (since it was pointed out to me) is the emphatic explanatory use of 'so', by interviewees on programmes such as Newsnight. It comes at the beginning of an utterance and it often seems to precede a well-rehearsed argument or series of arguments. Seems to me there's often something faintly patronising or evasive about it (because the speaker has prepared their argument and is only interested in getting it across). I even wonder if it's taught as part of media training.

Emilio Márquez said...

We also use that particular “mira” in Spain (or its respectfully distant counterpart “mire” [ˈmiɾe]), probably with a mid-level tone. The more you drawl the second, unstressed syllable, the more reluctant/impatient the impression will be.

David Crosbie said...

I take Look to signal a restart of the discourse. I would use it (I believe) when I wanted interrupt the thread of the discourse but without changing the subject.

I'm not sure what Paxman said before the first use but I would say that the second and third are sort-of programmed to continue with answers

TB What do I stand for?
JP I don't know.
TB I stand for ...... [answering his own question]

JP It doesn't?
TB No it doesn't [answering Paxman's question]

Instead of directly answering the questions, Blair restarts each time with a statement of basic position.

I think this works with stock response-types in general, not just factual answers.

A: Would you like a sweet?
B: Look, I told you I was on a diet.

A: Can you hold this for me?
B: Look, I've got my hands full.

A: Shall we get that bus?
B: Look, I've got to wait for my wife.

A: Goodbye, then.
B: Look, I'm coming with you.

A: And this is my brother Tom.
B: Look, you introduced us yesterday.

At least, that's how I think I use Look. And I wouldn't have to be irritated.

Marcin Braun said...

@John Cowan and Emilio Marquez

I think it's something like that in every language. In Polish we say "widzisz / widzi pan / widzi pani" (you see / you see, Sir / you see, Madam). Interestingly, it's not imperative but indicative.

DC said...

Yes, but we have 'you see' in English too, as a discourse marker, which has a different semantic and pragmatic force, so we still need to determine a context for 'look'.

Simon Bubb said...

Have you noticed how Australian sports interviewees seem to start most sentences with "Look"? Even when not being defensive.

Rania A said...

A similar case is found in Arabic. The verb (which has a similar meaning) may also connote a kind of argument, trying to introduce contrast, or simply giving an explanatory comment (sometimes in the form of interruption). In this usage, it is characteristic of non-standard Arabic.

محسن said...

Is this definition of 'look' in OED shared by every native English speaker, or is it just a personal feature of Tony Blair? Look, it gave me the impression that I don't know any English at all on pragmatic grounds!

DC said...

Anyone could use this discourse feature, but it's become noticeable in Blair's case, probably because of the prominence of the TV situation and the tone of the interviews.