in defence of “like”
When I was in high school I had an English teacher who was a self-proclaimed language snob. With hunched shoulders and a heavy scowl he would stalk the corridors, scanning the cacophony of teenage girls for sloppy English. If he heard you say ‘presume’ when you should have said ‘assume’, or ‘that’ when you meant ‘which’ you would be subjected to a mini lecture. His pet hate was the word ‘like’. In his mind, ‘like’ was an abomination.
I was reminded of this eccentric teacher when I read a piece by author Martin Amis. Amis was describing his friend, fellow writer Christopher Hitchens: ‘Christopher is one of the most terrifying rhetoricians that the world has yet seen. Christopher talks not only in complete sentences but also in complete paragraphs.’
After reading this assessment of the great writer I wrote out a New Year’s resolution: try to talk like Christopher Hitchens. In my mind, Hitchens embodied wit and eloquence. He could skewer his enemies and charm his friends using only his words. Fashioning myself into a terrifying rhetorician like Hitchens seemed like a sensible, even admirable, thing to try.
And so for a few hours I tried to speak in correct sentences. I imagined where punctuation marks would go as I spoke. I paused for colons and expanded contractions. Finally, I erased all the fillers from my speech. ‘Like’ was a dirty word according to the gospel of Hitchens.
As you can imagine I didn’t last long.
Try it. It’s fucking hard! You’ll sound like a robot. Grammatical and articulate, sure, but also creepy and stiff.
So my goal to speak like Hitchens failed miserably but I learnt a lesson: ‘like’ is, like, totally okay. People should just stop hating on ‘like’.
My high school English teacher is a somewhat extreme example of the style police who turn their noses up at ‘like’ but there are others such as Emma Thompson and Stephen Fry. Thompson and Fry believe people make themselves sound stupid by peppering their speech with ‘like’.
However, ‘like’ is just one of many extensible filler words that have developed over the years. Every generation and cultural group has them. They are woven into our vernacular naturally because it is near impossible to maintain highly-grammatical speech.
‘Like’ actually has a long and proud history. Many people believe that ‘like’ popped out of the etymological womb after the release of Frank and Moon Unit Zappa’s 1982 song Valley Girl. The song mocks Californian ‘Valspeak’ and includes lyrics such as ‘It’s like, barf me out’ and ‘He goes like, bag your face’. In actual fact, ‘like’ has been used as a filler for much longer. As early as the 19th century people in regional Wales and Scotland have used ‘like’ as a filler and quotative word. We can see an example in Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novel Kidnapped when a character asks, ‘What’s, like, wrong with him?’
Other early examples include a 1928 cartoon from the New Yorker that reads, ‘What’s he got – an awfice?’ ‘No, he’s got like a loft.’ Then in 1962 the word sneaks into A Clockwork Orange: ‘I, like, didn’t say anything.’
‘Like’ is a very flexible word. It can be used as a noun, verb, adverb, adjective, filler and quotative. It is used to stall for time, to help us pause and think, to fill gaps and glue sentences together, to indicate reported speech and exaggeration, and introduce gestures. As with other colloquial words, ‘like’ also marks out members of a club. It can help people identify and socialise with a particular culture, generation or group.
This is perhaps why Thompson, Fry, and my English teacher have such a problem with the word. They are disassociated from the group that employ ‘like’ and therefore notice it and question it.
For example, I notice and question acronymns such as ‘YOLO’ and ‘LOL’. I feel like slapping people when they say LOL instead of ACTUALLY LAUGHING LIKE A NORMAL PERSON. I also twitch like an Angry Beever when people use YOLO to assuage guilt or responsibility. ‘No condom #YOLO’. Not okay. To paraphrase a quote from Mean Girls: ‘Don’t have unprotected sex because you will get pregnant AND DIE’.
That being said I acknowledge that these acronyms are just part of the evolution of language. ‘YOLO’ and ‘LOL, like ‘like’, are just examples of how the human race is constantly changing the way we communicate and establish meaning. Linguistic invention helps our language thrive. After all wasn’t there that guy back in the 16th century who was writing plays about star-crossed lovers and making up crazy words that challenged convention and enriched the English language? He was, like, totally rad dude.