Thursday, March 6, 2008

110. Like, he doesn't like the word 'like'

My wife recently made a business-related trip to Indiana. Upon her arrival, she called with a quick question regarding her whereabouts. In pulling up a map, I noticed that she was near the University of Notre Dame. I made a quick mention to her proximity and lightheartedly said that I would like a Notre Dame sweatshirt. After a short debate about my interest in Notre Dame, in which I noted that growing up I enjoyed Notre Dame football and that I was a fan of Joe Montana (I recall running around the house with wristbands proclaiming to be Joe Montana), the issue seemingly passed. The conversation was more reminiscent that substantive, because I have not really been a fan of Notre Dame since Lou Holtz left.

Well I should have known better, because when she returned on Valentine's Day, I was warmly greeted with a quick bit of affection and a bag of stuff from the Notre Dame bookstore. I received two hats, a sweatshirt and three books. Gina noted with a bit of awe the size of the bookstore, and relayed the fact that the books were from an obscure dollar section. All three of the books seemed interesting; one was on dogs and the other two dealt with language, including a book by Richard Lederer entitled "A Man of My Words: Reflections on the English Language."

In heading to the office to shelve the books, where they would likely remain for some time, I took a quick flip through the Lederer book and noticed a short chapter on a subject that I had been meaning to comment on, entitled, "Like, Where is our Language Going?"

As the chapter suggests, it details the ghastly, and apparently addictive, use of the word "like" by teens and younger adults (although its use is by no means restricted to those groups). The use of the word has become almost painful to listen to, and worse, once you hear it spoken in a conversation, its addictive nature is such that others will start using it. It is on the top of my list of "unpleasurables," along with phone conversations that begin with "Where you at?" and the boring uncreative use of clich├ęs, such as "game on," and the worn-out sports proclamation that "we shocked the world."

His chapter on the subject recalls an amusing story in which a woman asked a clerk in a bookstore who authored the book "Like Water for Chocolate." The clerk spent a few unsuccessful minutes inquiring into the question, only to realize that the title of the famous book is not "Like Water for Chocolate" but rather, "Water for Chocolate." He aptly describes the use of the word "like" as one of three young speech patterns that "squeak like chalk across the blackboard of adult sensibilities."

When I coached baseball at Lake Ridge Academy, the bus ride conversation was consumed with, "I like went to the mall and, I like, bought, like, a new pair of shoes." I would follow up with, "You like went to the mall, or you went to the mall, and "you bought like a new pair of shoes, or you bought a new pair of shoes." Other conversations used the word "like" in substitution for "similar to"- "The teacher was acting like my Dad." I jokingly challenged my players to use "similar to" instead of "like" to help break this annoying habit, even if this particular use was correct. The challenge stimulated some awkwardly funny and entertaining conversations- "I similar to bought similar to a new pair of shoes."

In the book, Lederer is more amused than critical, and notes the word may be an "oral place holder," that is, an indication that important information is ahead. He also attributes it as a modern verbal tic, such as "um" and "you know."

In general, verbal tics are annoying, regardless of the particular choice of pause used to allow the speaker a brief moment to collect his or her thoughts. I am as guilty as anyone of using these verbal tics, and for a while attended Toastmaster meetings to help work through this. The challenge is getting comfortable with the brief moments of silence and relaxing when speaking publicly. I recently attended a training session in which the instructor said "you know" repeatedly, after almost every sentence- to the point that it was difficult to concentrate on the material.

So whether the use of the word "like" is a verbal tick, or a poor use of the English language, it is safe to say that it will be around for a long time. For those of us for which its use is "similar to" the screeching of a chalkboard, we will have to endure the nearly unbearable conversations until the word loses its popularity. And whether we regard the English language in a state of evolution or disarray, we can all appreciate and ponder our reflections of it. Because for some of us, and to rephrase, "it is like, so cool!"

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