A number of years and columns ago, I promised I wouldn’t be writing any more on the overuse of “like.” But like a traitor to the cause, I’m preparing just one more, hoping that by being nauseatingly whining, I can help cure the problem.
However, before writing such a column, let me explain that in the past, I’ve written columns based on a single word: Once, I became fascinated by how a guide on AMTRAK ended every sentence with “so” as he narrated our trip through Indian Country in western New Mexico.
Another time I wrote an entire column on “la jura,” a term that refers to cops, but only when they’re on the move. And we’ve already exhausted all the uses of “sapo,” a Spanish word that describes a lucky shot, usually in basketball. And of course, I’ve picked on “ya know,” “I mean,” “let’s see,” and other words and expressions that serve only as fillers.
In previous columns I’ve asked readers for their opinion on whether terms like “conflate,” “irregardless” and “comprised of” have always been around, to be resurrected in the heat of political season, or whether these words have simply sprung up for the occasion.
Some of my close relatives help nourish the fertile grounds for the use of like. Here’s an almost verbatim example, courtesy of a young relative: “I was just like teasing him, like, and he like got like mad and like said he wasn’t going to like speak to me again. Like it or not, that is teenspeak, festooned with six uses of like.
The trouble with attempting to constantly monitor the “likes” of others is that the interruption often becomes irritating and even rude, as if our only interest in what others say is in tallying the frequency of “like.”
Like any other person, I try to infer the true intent of the speaker, but it becomes like difficult when each sentence contains so many speed bumps.
Why did this particular word, among the 650,000 in the English language, become the most used? “Like” has several functions.
- It can be a pure comparison: “My car sounds like a truck”;
- A way of softening a response: “Dad, can I like borrow the car?” That gives Dad an opportunity to say no;
- An intensifier: “That drill sergeant is — like — mean.”
- As an expression of regret: “When I last saw him, I was like ‘wow!’ what do I see in that creep?”
- An introducer of conversation with a stranger: “Like man, where’d you get those shades?”
But mainly, “like” gets sprinkled over conversation, and those hoping to keep track of the “like”-ness of the discourse simply can’t count that high. Malcolm Gladwell, a New York Times columnist, was correct when he wrote that the omnipresence of “like” was usually the trademark of braces-wearing teen girls named Jennifer, who spend their days in malls.
And Dr. Laura Schlesinger, who conducts an advice show on radio, once became so overwhelmed by a caller’s use of “like” that she cut off the braces-wearing Jennifer long enough to order her to eliminate the use of “like” for the rest of the conversation.
It worked. For a while, but soon followed a torrent of likes.
It’s true that language changes. Why, among so many words, “like” became the most-mangled word, is a mystery.
We’ve made our language fuzzy, lacking precision. Things no longer are exact; they’re like other things. You don’t ever have a headache, but have like a headache. And you don’t ask if you can borrow five bucks; rather, you like borrow the money.
• • •
A reader, Niki Sebastian, wrote about my use of the there-their-they’re-they confusion that I alluded to in a recent column. Wrote Niki: “I never thought I’d find a grammar error in one of your columns! Especially not one about language and copy editing. But there it was, a there where a they should be.”
She adds, “Or was this another one of your tests of your readers, to see who would catch intentional errors?
I had written, “We at the Optic think in headlines, their being our pre-occupation.”
I attempted to defend my choice of “their” over “they,” but in doing so began seeming like an English teacher, which I am (or was). So I gave up the effort. Can some reader clear up this issue, in 50 words or less (er, fewer)?
• • •
Will all left-handed anthropologists please rise? The recent column on the travails of left-handers, you may recall, drew a list of admitted southpaws whose names appeared in this space.
I’d not been aware of the apparent preponderance of lefties among anthropologists until John Geffroy wrote that he and fellow anthropologist and wife Margaret both are gauche. Margaret’s long-time co-professor at Highlands, Bob Mishler, also is a lefty.
John writes, “Years ago, when I taught at Kansas University, I once had a huge class of 440 students, and had six teaching assistants. We noticed to our delight that six of the seven of us were lefties.”
And they join such luminaries as Oprah Winfrey, Jennifer Lawrence, Angelina Jolie, Rock Hudson, Dan Ackroyd and Jay Leno and three of the last four U.S. presidents.