Why We, Like, Say “Like” All the Time
Have you noticed that hardly anyone these days can complete a sentence without using the word like?
Some years ago, I found a book that helped me understand the phenomenon. It’s called The Evasion English Dictionary, by Maggie Balistreri. This is from the back cover: “…the E.E.D. is more than a dictionary of euphemisms by a hip and scathingly funny young linguist — it’s a merciless translation of the banalities of contemporary speech, a smart and useful guide to help you pierce the manipulative use of language and visit a universe where, duh, words have meaning.”
Balistreri has a knack for thinking about current language habits. Instead of just being irritated at the ubiquitous likes of modern conversation, she pulls back the curtain and figures out what we really mean.
My teenaged daughters pepper virtually every spoken sentence with this needless syllable. So do all their friends. I wish I could say, however, that this was a purely adolescent issue. I know plenty of adults who seem oblivious to the same habit. Even intelligent, well-educated folks. How is it, like, possible, that, like so many people are, like, addicted to to this word?
Ms. Balistreri thinks it has to do with an unwillingness to speak with clarity and conviction. It’s all about evasion. We don’t do this consciously, of course, but she dissects and analyzes various ways we use the word. Below is a sampling, straight from the book.
the undercutting like
Translation: I’m not smart; I’m cool. I don’t know where I picked up that knowledge.
- I think he meant it, like, metaphorically.
- That was like, Beethoven.
the vague like
- Have you been outside? It’s like, 100 degrees.
- This was back in like, October.
the self-effacing like
Translation: Virtue is shameful.
- No, I don’t want to like, betray her trust.
- I want to try to be more, like, considerate.
the cowardly like
Translation: I disagree. That is, if it’s okay.
- I think you’re like, overreacting.
- Did you like, misspell that?
- Didn’t you say you were gonna like, pay me back later?
the filler like
Translation: I finished my sentence.
- How could you do that? I mean, I went out of my way to meet you there, and you didn’t show, and you didn’t even call, and it was like…
the apology like
Translation: Sorry, I’m inarticulate.
- I was like, wow.
- I, like, guess so.
the multimedia like
Translation: Visual aid to follow.
- The baby was so cute. She was like…(Look cute.)
- I was so happy. I was like…(Jump and clap hands.)
- Did you see what she was wearing? I was like…(Judge.)
This is just a short sample. And the book covers other evasive linguistic devices that have woven their way into our everyday speech, including besides, but, feel, oh well, and whatever. Balistreri doesn’t excuse this sloppiness. She pokes fun as she explains. I found the book both enlightening and highly entertaining.
Although I recommend the book, I have to warn you that there are occasional profanities included. So don’t, like, get mad at me if you are, like, offended.
I’d love your comments. Do these interpretations of like seem correct? Did they make you laugh like they did me? Does understanding why we say things help? Any ideas on how to help kick the like habit?
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