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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

ya think?

(1990’s | journalese? | “you think so?,” “isn’t it obvious?,” “no(, really)!”)

Some new expressions aren’t so new because they’re really shortened older expressions. Recently I covered “it’s not about you,” which falls into that category — the hacked-down stub of a much longer thought. “Give back” is another. “Not so much,” “thanks for sharing,” “globalization” in a sneaky way, maybe “people of color,” “got your back.” “Ya think?” probably is no more than a shortening of “Ya think so, huh?,” but it also occurred in “Whaddaya think of . . . ?” and “Ya think I (etc.) can . . . ?” Back when it was part of longer phrases, it was there to help set up the main event, not to boss the whole conversation around. Now, just like “it’s not about you,” it has acquired a nasty tinge in the process of shedding its appendages — in the early days, at least, it could be an exuberant way of asking “Could this be true?” without irony. (It may even now be used to second a statement you agree with, but even then it is a bludgeon.) Today, “Ya think?” means “you just made a very obvious or unnecessary statement” with the strong implication that only an idiot would have said such a thing.

The exact expression started creeping in by 1990 or so, slowly separating from its parent(s) and learning to stand on its own. A number of journalists used the phrase early on, not generally quoting interview subjects, so I think this may be a genuine example of journalese — that is, the journalists acted as creators rather than simply megaphones. “Ya think?” might be athletese or celebritese as well, given its early exposure among sportswriters and gossip columnists. “Don’t ya think?,” which came along a bit earlier, means simply “Don’t you agree?” But “Ya think?” is not its opposite. We already had “Who’d a thunk it?,” which had a hearty, naive quality that “Ya think” drew on at first. The spelling “d’ya think” was favored by Pittsburgh sportswriter and early adopter Gene Collier, tender of the annual Trite Trophy.

Punctuation note: I have no hesitation in spelling “ya think?” with a question mark only, but I don’t deny that it might in many cases also rate an exclamation point, in the manner of “hello?!.” In speech, it bears considerable emphasis, partly through force of utterance and partly because it is designed to create a pause by denying the other party a compelling reply. Only a few expressions that don’t include “what the hell” can carry both query and outburst convincingly.

“Think” is a tricky word to use here, because the expression is meant to suggest that the speaker was not thinking at all. If your brain had actually been working, the interlocutor would not have found it necessary to emit a loud “Ya think?” accompanied by an eye-roll and a healthy shot of sarcasm. (“Mentate” and “mentation” are handy words to denote cerebral activity that does not rise to the level of thinking. But “Ya mentate?” probably will not catch on.) The use of “think” sharpens the irony, reminding you that not only did you say something dumb, if you had thought about for a split second, you would have kept your mouth shut. Or maybe I’m giving too much credit to the “Ya think”ers. How would Rodin have posed one of them?

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