Last night I inadvertently watched a bit of America’s Top Modelon TV (on the CW network, which, I think, used to be either UPN or Warner TV or something–I’m trying to figure out what it has to do with country & western music). Young women were being interviewed by a celebrity panel about themed photo sessions for which they had posed.
One model was challenged about her lack of expression or involvement or the emotion in her face or something, and she accepted the validity of the challenge by responding, “I know, right?”
This is a locution I have only noticed in the past two years. I first heard it spoken by a really intelligent guy in my German 3 class last year. I understood what it meant, semantically, but the phrase deserves a bit of unpacking. When the phrase “I know” is used in English (that is, in just about all dialects of English worldwide), it signifies assent and acceptance of the point of view of a conversational partner. It’s a fairly confident assertion of acknowledgement, of agreement.
On the other hand, the questioning “right?” stuck onto the end of a sentence is a request of affirmation of an assertion and a simultaneous invitation to disagreement. Right? Don’t you think so? Do you agree with me?
So when a young speaker (and I’ve only heard this phrase used by speakers under the age of 25) combines the two, it seems to be a simultaneous assertion of confidence and an instant pulling back of that confidence so as not to seem too pushy. It seems to ask for a continuation of the conversation. If the interlocutors continue the conversation, it may branch into areas of disagreement, but so far they are of the same mind.
I tried to find a discussion of this on Language Log without success; likewise with Language Hat. But The Mot Juste contained a rather frustrated post deploring the spread of this phrase a couple years ago. EQ of The Mot Juste promises to answer it with a defiant, “no, you’re wrong. You obviously don’tknow, so don’t waste my time trying to convince me you do.”
But I don’t think that would actually happen in conversation, because I don’t think the phrase would be uttered if there weren’t already some basic agreement present in the conversation.