Do you, like, like the word like?

My first edition of this column was of an introductory nature. Due to the relatively short nature of these columns, in my Introductory Edition I did not go into all of the reasons for engaging in this exercise. One of the reasons, and that is precisely the case now, is that I am trying to understand something that frankly, I am having a very difficult time with. Here is the best example I can think of. This language phenomenon is so baffling to me that I don’t know where to turn to make sense of it.

English is suffering from a plague of fillers. Fillers are those words people throw into a spoken sentence while they are thinking about what to say. I don’t have a problem with the occasional filler. I sometimes even say “well” or “actually” or something similar. But the rampant use of fillers (“you know”, “I mean”, and “like”) has become nothing less than epidemic.

I was recently wondering if this is just happening in the United States. I don’t believe that is the case, but more study is required. I do know that I have spent some time recently in the company of a young man from England who is temporarily in the U.S. working as a soccer coach. We are all soccer fans in my family, and two of my grandchildren are playing the sport. This English person has been a part-time instructor, and to show our hospitality we have invited him to our home a few times. One evening we watched a couple of games after dinner. Before long I noticed something. The very nice young man from Newcastle could not utter a single phrase, clause or sentence without the word ‘like’. Don’t tell me that the epidemic has spread to England!

One of the important points I try to make when I am teaching my students and coaching people on good oral communications skills is that there is nothing wrong with a few moments of silence now and then. If someone is giving a presentation, during which it is unlikely that the audience will interrupt, the speaker can, and should, have occasional moments of silence. This might be for dramatic effect, or it might be used to give the speaker an additional few seconds to reflect on an important point. Regardless, it is not a bad thing and might even get listeners to pay more attention.

I would say the same holds true during times of dialogue. Our brains are capable of operating at lightning speed, but our voices simply cannot keep up. Thus, fillers are sometimes used during those few moments when we are connecting our thoughts, thinking about the right word or phrase to describe something. Some of the traditional fillers are ‘Well’, “Let’s see” and “Actually”. I am not suggesting that fillers be eliminated. I am suggesting that the frequency of fillers is the problem, and that a moment or two of silent reflection is completely acceptable.

The best example of a filler that has gotten out of control is ‘like’. The word ‘like’ has been around for a long time. It won’t serve any purpose to explore the etymology, but for centuries, at least back to Shakespeare’s time, the word has had two basic uses in English. The first one is as a transitive verb (those verbs that must have an object with them). I like Italian food. I like opera, and I like to take power naps. That is pretty simple.

The second use, if we want an easy way to remember it, is as substitute for ‘similar to’. “This song by Norah Jones is like (similar to) that one.” One additional use of the word like that I might be able to understand (but not really accept or ever use myself) is as a substitute for ‘approximately’. Someone might say, “I have like four hundred friends on Facebook.” This should not be confused with having ‘Likes’ on Facebook. Someone may be thinking, “Hey, ‘like’ can also be a noun.” That is true. We can say, “I have a number of likes”. However, this is not a popular expression today, and there are plenty of substitutes for that use of like.

There really are no other traditional uses for the word like. Today, however, like might be the most often used word in the language. How many times I have heard something similar to this (for example, while eavesdropping on the bus as a commuter)? “Wow, it was like a really nice weekend. We, like, went out to the park, and it was like, beautiful. I like went hiking and then came home and like chilled for a while, and later, I was like, wow, really worn out by the hike.” (I was more worn out by the person’s repetition of like.) If that person had removed every instance of the word like from that narrative the meaning would not have changed at all, and the point could have been made in less time and with greater clarity.

So, how did this begin? I have tried to think about the origins of the non-traditional uses of like. I could go back to my undergrad days – oh, no, that is too far back (and in another century!). Let’s say we go back twenty years or so. I don’t recall the ubiquitous use of like back then. It might have been used sometimes, but nothing to the degree it is used today. What I do recall is when one of my children was in high school during the early 1990s I overheard conversations between my son and his friends and there was ‘like’, popping up quite frequently. I asked my son about that, and he was oblivious to the issue. I saw the ‘What are you talking about’ expression on his face. He didn’t really understand. Fortunately, he did not emulate his friends to the degree they used like.

Isn’t it interesting that when we pay attention to something, perhaps for the first time really, we notice it more frequently? We have all experienced this. Well, all of a sudden, or so it seemed to me, everywhere I turned there was the pesky and irritating ‘like’. At first it was confined to young people. I was accustomed to words and expressions that became almost instantly popular, and when that happened it seemed that the whole world was using it. My favorite example comes from my high school years when I was living in Hawaii. The word that suddenly appeared, and was required in almost every other sentence, was ‘bitchin’. I must admit I adopted it for a while myself.

I continued to ponder this phenomenon and wonder about its longevity. Surely the use of like would be just another linguistic transient, similar to ‘bitchin’ in the 1960s. Then, something truly amazing happened. There was an open house at my son’s high school early in his junior year. My wife and I were able to attend the classes that evening that mimicked our son’s schedule. I only remember going to one of those classrooms. It was the English classroom, and there was the teacher, a man in his mid-thirties, who provided some insights into his class. I don’t remember exactly what he described, but I will never forget the pattern that I quickly noticed. Here is what I remember hearing that evening:  “I like to have them read, and like think about what they are reading. It’s like, you know, they need to, like, be exposed to this great literature. And, like, they will be writing a lot also. I mean, it is I important to, like, make the connection between reading literature and writing.”

Oh no! My son was not only becoming linguistically infected with the word like from his peers, even the teachers were contagious! How was that possible? The worst part of it all, of course, was the fact that it was his English teacher who was using those fillers. I left the classroom in disbelief, but at least I was coming closer to an understanding of the matter. One issue here is that people often imitate other people in their forms of speech. Nevertheless, if I were an epidemiologist searching for the origins of some strange disease, I believe I would have an easier time than trying to determine how like, and all of the other popular fillers today, have spread so quickly. All I know is, when somebody asks me, “Do you, like, like this movie?” I sit there wondering what that questions means. I also realize that just a little bit more of my sanity has seeped away.

In my next submission I will explore the psychological origins of fillers. I have a feeling there will be plenty of my blog editions on this topic of fillers, so please return so I can share my investigations and discoveries with you. Now, do you (‘like’) like what I have written so far? (‘I mean’) If you do, and (‘like’) you want to, (‘you know’) understand this topic better and (‘I mean’) try to (‘like’) see if there is, (‘you know’) something we can do about it, please stay (‘like’) tuned in. I trust I have made my point.

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