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On Words: 'I Know, Right?'


There are various origin stories for the phrase “I know, right?” In The Week magazine, James Harbeck attributes the popularization of this phrase to the movie Mean Girls, which the brilliant Tina Fey wrote. Other commentators claim to have been using the phrase since sometime in the 1990s, long before Mean Girls’ 2004 debut. Some place its origins in the suburbs of Los Angeles, another bit of Valley Girl verbiage to haunt us all.

As gnarly as that may be, it’s interesting how “I know, right?” seems to accomplish two things at once: it both emphatically affirms what the other person said (“I know”) and invites confirmation from the person that emphatic affirmation is really what’s called for (“right?”) This is the use of language more as a relational tool than a way of conveying meaningful information. It’s a common phenomenon but, according to those who study this sort of thing, it is often overlooked. Some cultural theorists might argue that defining and refining relationships is actually the primary thing language does, and that “I know, right?” is just more obvious about it than, say, an email or a technical manual, or a play.

Maybe “I know, right?” is becoming popular because it’s so needed now, when immersion in distractions is not only easy but expected. Phones, music players, cubicles and privacy fences all make us less aware of our social situations, and “I know, right?” with its affirming and confirming gestures might be just what we need to help others know they’re all right with us.