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Nowadays it's hard to eavesdrop on an informal conversation (at least in the US) without hearing the phrase 'i guess'.

Wiktionary has two relevant definitions for guess:

(chiefly US) to suppose (introducing a proposition of uncertain plausibility).

(colloquial) To think, conclude, or decide (without a connotation of uncertainty). Usually in first person: "I guess".

The earliest quotation they have for the first sense is from Shakespeare, which is far further back in time than I'd expected it to be. (Not all together; better far, I guess, That we do make our entrance several ways.- Henry VI)

But I'm less interested in the earliest uses and more interested in when (and also why) it became so prevalent.


Responding to a comment:

I don't know if the OP has noticed an increase in its use (when, please?) or has always heard it but only just thought to complain.

I've heard it all my (teenage) life and use it myself (so not a complaint). There's not really a specific uptick I've witnessed, but I doubt that people 200 years ago were going around and 'guessing' instead of 'thinking'.

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    As for the earliest uses, the paywalled OED’s earliest reference for I guess used in this sense is not Shakespeare but John Locke in 1692. The sense given is: “6. I guess: sometimes used, with playful moderation of statement, in reference to what the speaker regards as a fact or a secure inference. Hence colloquial, originally in the northern U.S. (sometimes with omission of the pronoun) = ‘I am pretty sure’.” ―Which leads me to postulate that the corresponding southern U.S. phrasing might be I reckon.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jul 16, 2023 at 16:15
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    @FumbleFingers Dincha know yarnt sposta guess? :) But yes, there's some degree of distancing present here in conversation, no matter the specific verb used.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jul 16, 2023 at 17:06
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    My "guess" is that people have been using circumlocutory verbs in relation to what they know/think since long before even the earliest "English". I also reckon this happens in every language. Commented Jul 16, 2023 at 17:12
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    I imagine it's more common in casual speech/texting than in formal written English, and since today we have a lot more of the casual than the formal, it will seem to increase over the long term. I don't know if the OP has noticed an increase in its use (when, please?) or has always heard it but only just thought to complain, but I'm sure it has a long history and before it people were saying other equally annoying things (and you can compare alternatives like "I reckon" in parts of the US South.) So good news: it doesn't reflect a decline in logical rigor!
    – Stuart F
    Commented Jul 16, 2023 at 17:58
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    For what it is worth, Ngram shows a spike in usage from the 90s. books.google.com/ngrams/…
    – user 66974
    Commented Jul 16, 2023 at 18:10

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I guess in the sense "I suppose" dates from the late 14th century per attestations in the MED. If it is prevalent, I guess it's because people prefer to say "I suppose" to saying "I have no (effing) clue and I don't really care" or "I'm damn certain". It is somewhat polite.

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