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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

what’s your point?

(1990’s | “your point being?” “we already knew that,” “why are you bringing this up?”)

It doesn’t mean “what are you getting at?” any more. Oh, it still does, a lot of the time, but it has developed a purely rhetorical use. And far from expressing uncertainty or puzzlement, the new sense conveys absolute understanding. In using it, you acknowledge that you know exactly what the other person is saying. It’s a wry or exasperated way to admit that the other person is right, or sometimes to deflect a bombshell by acknowledging that you were already aware of the problem. (Scroll down to comments to get a fair summary of the uses of the phrase.) It’s a phrase you use in conversation, and it often has the effect of obviating the other party’s line of argument. They thought they had you, but you spiked their guns.

I remember first encountering the rhetorical use of the phrase in a sitcom, probably in the 1990’s. I didn’t really find anything like it before 1990 in LexisNexis or Google Books. It may have leaked into the language from England (or Canada); it seems a little too brisk and artful to have originated on these shores, and as far as LexisNexis can tell, it showed up in Her Majesty’s former dominions before you heard it here. It started to turn up here and there in the subcultural press by 1995, I think, but I haven’t located a likely conduit into American English. There may have been a television program or film that helped popularize this particular use of the phrase, but if so I don’t know what it was. One notion that occurred to me is that it’s just an elaboration of “So what?” (Often the phrase is rendered “So what’s your point?”) It can be used dismissively to mean “what’s the big deal?”, and it’s possible that this sense led the way.

Probably everyone knows this, but “What’s your point?” is not the same as “What’s the point?” The latter is a much bigger and bleaker question, meaning something like “Why go on?” or “There’s no reason to keep doing this.” It also lacks the breadth of usage: “What’s your point” can be used with many intonations, with humor or belligerence, with fondness or exasperation.


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