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In an article titled “The Ice Age Cometh” (Fortune, May 25, 1998, reprinted in The Great Unraveling, 2003), Paul Krugman writes:

Suppose that two tribes—the Clan of the Cave Bear and its neighbor, the Clan of the Cave Bull—live in close proximity, but traditionally follow different hunting strategies. The Cave Bears tend to hunt rabbits—a safe strategy, since you can be pretty sure of finding a rabbit every day, but one with a limited upside, since a rabbit is only a rabbit. The Cave Bulls, on the other hand, go after mammoths—risky since you never know when or if you’ll find one, but potentially very rewarding, since mammoths are, well, mammoth.

The thinking behind the phrase “mammoths are, well, mammoth” seems to be that by visibly hesitating in the midst of the semi-tautological observation that “mammoths are mammoth,” Krugman either distances himself from the obviousness of the observation (by indicating that he is aware of it) or slows down his narrative so that readers can savor the flash of wit.

In the past several years, I have seen dozens of instances of this use of well. For example, from The Rough Guide to the Earth (2007):

The other group [of meteorites] are the finds. These are meteorites that are, well, found, either by chance or by searchers looking for them after reports of a fall.

And from Susan Pinker, The Sexual Paradox: Men, Women, and the Real Gender Gap (2008):

The bell curve simply looks different for males, with more men at the tail ends of the distribution, where their measured skills are either dismal, stellar, or a mix of the two. ... Comparing men and women in the middle ranges one finds fewer sex differences, but at the extremes the picture looks—well—extreme.

I had imagined that this particular use of well was a fairly recent phenomenon. (A Google Books search for the phrase “work is, well, work,” for example, turned up nine unique relevant matches, none from before 1975.) But then I found this example from Walter de la Mare, Memoirs of a Midget (1922):

As for poetry, one might have guessed from what they said that it meant no more than — well, its "meaning." As if a butterfly were a chrysalis.

In a question-and-answer on this site about Garbage/stuff words, several answerers cited the terms "discourse markers" (identified as "words we use in speech to separate different pieces of information") and "fillers" (identified as words that "fill in gaps while the speaker thinks of what to say next." However, what I'm talking about here is not the unconscious use of a filler word while searching for a way to complete a thought, but the hyperconscious simulation of such use, for literary effect.

My questions are

  1. Is there a standard rhetorical term for this formulaic use of well (or an allied word such as ahem or erm) to express self-aware hesitation prior to stating the obvious?

  2. How far back historically does use of this tactic in English go?

  • It is an interesting question. I'm afraid I don't know the answer. But if you ask me what function does this well have, then I think it is there to imply that the speaker has thought about the answer and cannot come up with anything better than its original. And hence the notion is crafted as wit. 'And how to flies get from place to place, well, they fly' – WS2 Aug 4 '14 at 22:18
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Too long for a comment (but it's not really an answer either so feel free to down vote it, well, down.)

There's a couple of things going on here, the first is a switch in meaning, the second a statement of the obvious.

In ...mammoths are, well, mammoth. the well is there to denote that the meaning of the word mammoth has just changed from the noun meaning large, extinct Elephant to the adjective mammoth meaning simply huge (not having the properties of a mammoth).

The same applies in ...at the extremes the pictures look, well, extreme. The noun extremes meaning from the farthest ends of the range is the same word as the adjective extreme meaning exceptional. The well is there to make sure the reader knows to switch meanings.

The well might not be required to say giants are giant as both the noun and the adjective are focussed on the same thing; largeness of size.


The one about 'finds' seems to me to be a slightly different structure. It uses the well to make it clear just how obvious the noun finds is.

...the finds. These are ..., well, found is just stating the obvious so that the listener/reader doesn't have to wonder what the noun finds really means because it's almost too obvious that finds would have been found.

Using finds as a noun and then explaining how these items were located using found seems like an attempt at humour, located or discovered might be better words to use than found.


I'm not at all sure about the last one, meant no more than — well, its "meaning." but reading the earlier pages it looks like the author means that some people can happily take poetry literally instead of figuratively and the well is a case of not being able to find a better than word than the similar preceding word, meant/meaning, but as the author has put it in quotes I expect it was done intentionally for some reason.

It might be a statement of the obvious: using meaning as don't read anything in to it.


And lastly there's the 'Estuary Well' - nothing to do with the above kind of well, it just means very so no need for the commas. Also nothing to do with the hole in the ground full of water type of well.

That water is well clear

This hole is well deep

Mammoths are well mammoth

  • This indeed isn't an answer but it should be appended to the question as it explains the usage of the word well, well, well. – workoverflow Nov 12 '17 at 8:53
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It is a speech disfluency which in turn is an interjection.

Speech disfluency

Recent linguistic research has suggested that non-pathological disfluencies may contain a variety of meaning; the frequency of "uh" and "um" in English is often reflective of a speaker's alertness or emotional state. Some have hypothesized that the time of an "uh" or "um" is used for the planning of future words; other researchers have suggested that they are actually to be understood as full-fledged function words rather than accidents, indicating a delay of variable time in which the speaker wishes to pause without voluntarily yielding control of the dialogue. There is some debate as to whether to consider them a form of white noise or as a meaning-filled part of language.

As far as its etymology, good question.

  • I'm reluctant to characterize well this way when it's (1) clearly done on purpose and (2) in print rather than speech. – snailboat Aug 5 '14 at 0:16
  • @snailboat "Recent linguistic research has suggested that non-pathological disfluencies may contain a variety of meaning; the frequency of "uh" and "um" in English is often reflective of a speaker's alertness or emotional state. Some have hypothesized that the time of an "uh" or "um" is used for the planning of future words; other researchers have suggested that they are actually to be understood as full-fledged function words rather than accidents, indicating a delay of variable time in which the speaker wishes to pause without voluntarily yielding control of the dialogue." – SurvMach Aug 5 '14 at 0:22
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It is a kind of verbal pause. It can be used to break a sentence to introduce a simile, or an explanatory phrase, or a punchline. Sometimes it can stand alone:

A masked bandit approaches Jack Benny. The bandit points a gun at Benny and exclaims: "Your money or your life!" Benny appears to ponder. He places his index finger against his chin and simply says: "Well.................."

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