In reviewing an otherwise illuminating interview with a local 15-year-old recently I was struck by the number of times this forthright and accomplished young person used the filler word "like" in her speech.
As it happens, I'm in a business where examination of word use and argot is driven by the need to understand and convey a person's meaning -- quickly. It was, I found, tough going to make my way through a conversation littered with "likes." Seven of them in one sentence, as it turned out -- two of them back to back, used in rapid-fire fashion, as in: "Like, like Harvard is like such a, like, conservative college."
Had to give her points for the polysyllabic usage, however.
Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not a hardcore grammarian and I don't mean to wag my finger. But I want to understand. I happen to believe words can and should be used well to help drive home a person's meaning, and that shielding meaning behind endlessly repetitive smokescreen words only muddies things and makes communication -- and understanding -- more difficult.
That, of course, is my opinion. Others seem perfectly fine with the cliched blather perpetrated by such current cultural icons as Kim Kardashian and the cast of Jersey Shore, and use it with mind-numbing regularity. It has almost become a type of speech in itself, and I have found myself looking up to scan a room crowded with intelligent, successful adults to find the perpetrator of Like-speech dropping L-bombs amidst a paen to the local Lamorinda swim league or shopping center.
"Like," when used with its painfully drawn out cousin "Oh... mah... Ga-awd," are nothing more than filler words and stalls, verbal props used to shore up vapid conversation -- which is usually about nothing, and ultimately forgettable, but nearly everyone (except grouchy, friendless editor-types) appears to be getting by just fine in life with this lazy language in place.
Where did it come from? I guess we could blame the fetching but hauntingly shallow Cher Horowitz of "Clueless," or maybe Frank Zappa and Moon Unit who gave us "Valley Girl" and "Like, totally" in the early 1980s. Whatever its roots, this Californianization of American youth-speak has branded us the world over as knuckle-dragging, pot puffing simpletons undeserving of our role as global leaders.
It appears it will be an uphill climb for many of us before we can say we've reclaimed our native language and put it to its best possible, intended use. This was driven home this week as I reviewed quotes from the survivors of the mass shooting in Aurora, with witness statements replete with likes and OMG's and even the unfortunate "Holy crap." That last one is a personal fave. I mean, nothing sums up your near death experience at the hands of a crazed gunman quite as well as the elegant: "I saw him walk in carrying all those guns and I was, like, 'Holy Crap...'"
Pretty much says it all for us.
So what are we to do? Some parents and teachers, those who haven't succumbed to Like Disease themselves, are so irritated by the virus-like growth of “like” as an idiom of the young that they've branded it a verbal tic -- much like the string of profanities blurted by a Tourette patient -- and banned it, as much as they can, from their classrooms and presence.
Some linguists, however, have called use of the L-word an innovative development in white English, a discourse-marker used to introduce quotable speech -- or a non-verbal expression like a shrug or a sigh, as in: "I'm like... (shrug, indicating confusion)."
Maybe that's why I'm having such a difficult time with this. My job has always been to capture language, hopefully in its fullest, most expressive form and language is eluding me, reduced and abbreviated until it has become nothing but forgettable, repetitive expressions the user assumes is conveying their meaning.
For me, at least, it's not. But how about you?
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