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“Like” is a Four Letter Word

“Like” is a Four Letter Word
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If you asked a pirate what the worst four letter word in the English language was, he would probably rattle off a long list of invectives that would peel the barnacles off the hull of his salty ship. What pirates of old and people today fail to realize is that there is another four-letter word that is far more profane: Like. Not in that pleasant and agreeable sense as in I like to walk in the park. Not as used metaphorically in phrases such as, He runs like the wind. But in the absence of meaning, the void this word now mechanically fills when we are at a loss for words or don’t have the sense to stop talking.

Yes indeed, a horrid linguistic pattern has emerged in our diction that has crept in with all of the insidiousness of snake.  Unlike the multi-faceted F-word, like in its new context has no purpose, no real semantic significance. Hell, it can’t even be considered a part of speech. Akin to other meaningful forms of expression such as um or ah, the word like speaks volumes about how much our ability to communicate has diminished. And in this it has its own blasphemous dimensions that go far beyond the level of obscenity found in some of its more risqué counterparts.

It is difficult to say when exactly like became prominent in our daily means of expression.  I am inclined to believe it slithered its way out of the San Fernando Valley sometime in the mid-80s. It reflected the vacuity of T.V.-addled teenage brains, the insecurities young people had with speaking their minds in an all too insipid suburban landscape. Yet this semantically devoid aberration is now spreading well beyond its place and age of origin. Like has become a household word, an inane interjection, something to say when we lose our social-mediatized train of thought.  People, young and old, now use this conversational crutch to hobble their way through all types of communication. We have become the simile society where nothing is what it is, but like what it is.

Believe me, as a writer, I’m all for similes, metaphors, analogies and the occasional syllogistic ménage-á-trois. However, in far too many cases the similes have neither substance nor an appropriate antecedent. In short, people are comparing the things they say to nothing, thus cheapening their meaning. I heard this little gem while attempting to eavesdrop on a conversation in a café the other day: “He was like, and then I like said; and then he goes, and then like I go and then like…” Damn, you can’t even listen in on a conversation anymore because no one is really saying anything. The metaphors these people were making were as palpable as the steam wafting off their lattes. He was like what? She was like what? I was like what? What anyone not in the “like club” gleans from conversations like these is a semantic insecurity on the part of the speakers and an inability to express themselves effectively. Think of the difference between these two sentences.

I’m really angry at him.

I’m like really like angry with him.

Are you angry with him or not? Or do you like to be angry with him? Or do you like like to be like angry with him? Or is the emotion like anger, but not quite? That damn word can pop up just about anywhere to make eavesdroppers like myself unable to follow a simple conversation. I wish I could say it were a clever ruse to prevent me from listening in, but I suspect less ingenious reasons. People are simply growing less comfortable with speaking their minds. Confrontation is now done by email and texting so we must now add like to soften the sting of everything we say.

If like isn’t bad enough, we have another manifestation of these linguistic insecurities. A curious verbal tic where everything we say is a question. Yes, we are all familiar with that insecure uptick at the end of every phrase as though we were constantly asking permission to say something. How can we have a conversation based entirely on questions? Somewhere along the line someone has to make an affirmation. We must draw a conclusion if we are to prove to ourselves that we haven’t just been flapping our gums. What happened to simply making an observation or spitting out an opinion? Have we become so insecure in our speech that we can’t even make a simple statement?

Although we didn’t grow up with these ridiculous speech impediments, people in their 40s, 50s and beyond use them all too frequently. The speech patterns of our children are now influencing the way we speak, and this just shouldn’t happen. News pundits and other professional communicators are now guilty of these offenses, and that’s where we are really in trouble. Listening in on a conversation of fellow middle-aged college professors in the elevator, I had to control the urge to spank or ground them. Every other word was like and every phrase, no matter how factual, was phrased with the intonation of a question. Is this the way these esteemed university professors speak to their students while teaching class? (How do they like learn anything, like?)

As our language atrophies at the hands of what passes today for communication, I can’t help but think we are linguistically doomed. I imagine a futuristic, pared down language, a less than nuanced mingling of grunts all in different shades of like, and all curling upward in endless question.   For any of us who respects language, it’s important that we do something to stop this nightmarish trend from going any further. As middle aged people we should be setting the trends in communication, not following in the footsteps of our verbally challenged children.

Perhaps these are the ramblings of a writer and English teacher, someone who holds language in higher esteem than your average person. However, let me ask you this. If I had riddled this article with the word like, would you have read it this far, or would you think it wasn’t worth the trouble because I simply didn’t know how to communicate effectively?


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