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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

i’ll shut up now

(2000’s | “I’ve said enough,” “I’ve said too much,” “I’m boring you,” “you win”)

This expression has always been available without any sense of inevitability, at least as long as “shut up” has meant “stop talking,” or since the mid-nineteenth century, if the OED is anything to go by. It has taken on the quality of a fixed phrase only in the last twenty years. Most often it means “If I say anything else I’ll get in trouble,” or “I’m already in trouble,” or just “I’m getting tiresome.” But the range of possible meanings is quite broad — strikingly so. It can be as simple as “You need to concentrate, so I’ll stop distracting you.” Or “I’m tired of hearing my own voice” (not as common as it might be). Maybe “I’m not going to win this argument.” Sometimes it’s used to imply, “I don’t want to spoil it by going on too long.” Or even “you just put it better than I ever could.” Journalists like to use it to end a column, where it signals “don’t take what I just said too seriously.” And it has a corresponding range of moods: nervous, concerned, offended, resigned, jocular, self-deprecating, and so forth.

The fixed phrase came along in the 1990’s. The first instance I found on LexisNexis came from 1987, uttered by Madonna, who had ruffled feathers by referring to her “little smelly” hometown. When she explained herself afterwards, she closed her statement by saying, “I think I’ll shut up now.” A pretty clear instance of “I’ve already gotten in enough trouble.” I found scattered uses in the 1990’s. This is another expression that sounds like it ought to be a catch phrase from a television show or a comedian’s shtick, or some celebrity’s tag line. But there’s no evidence that Madonna’s use of it — in context, it’s not really possible to determine if she was composing a normal English sentence or deliberately echoing, or coining, a newly hatched phrase — helped push it into everyday language. It just trickled in over the course of a decade or so. (Compare “good luck with that,” which took a similarly indirect route into our consciousness.) Hell, now there’s even a country song called “I’ll Shut up Now.”

When this phrase is spoken, the emphasis falls not on “now” or “I’ll” but on “up.” Not only the wording but the rhythm is invariable. Google suggests that “I’ll shut up now” is particularly popular in blogs and social media, which may reflect Google’s bias or may reflect a real trend. There’s no question that the expression is becoming more common, and therefore more ordinary.

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