Like, like like

Jim Frederick

March 10, 1993|By Jim Frederick

OUR elders would have us believe that we -- the twentysomething generation, Generation X, the MTV generation -- are doomed to fail, not in the least by our supposed grammatical ineptness.

Paramount to our problems, they claim, is a tendency to pepper our dialogue with the word "like" as if it were a verbal tic, demonstrating our abysmal vocabularies and utter lack of neurological activity.

Don't believe it. Much more than the random misfire of a stunted mind, "like" is actually a rhetorical device that demonstrates the speaker's heightened sensibility and offers the listener added levels of color, nuance and meaning.

Take the sentence, "I can't drive you to the mall because, like, my mom took the car to get her hair frosted." Here, "like" is a crucial phonic punctuation mark that indicates:

"Important information ahead!" In our frenetic society, where silence is no longer powerful but completely alien, the dramatic pause doesn't carry much rhetorical clout.

We employ "like" to replace that now obsolete device.

Or consider: "The human tongue is, like, totally gross." The use of "like" acknowledges that the tongue is not exactly totally gross but something similar to totally gross. It shows awareness that an indictment this harsh needs tempering.

We repeatedly display such linguistic savvy in everyday observances: "My dad is, like, an anal-retentive psycho." Both acknowledge that the concept of direct correspondence between word and meaning has been, since Wittgenstein and Saussure, little more than a deluded fantasy.

In a new, ingenious usage, the word "like" becomes a verb form employed to recount an earlier conversation. Consider, "And she was like, 'You told us all to meet in front of the Burger King.' And I was like, 'Whatever, you liar. Why would I when I knew it was going to snow?'"

The difficulty here in determining what was actually said is not a limitation, but rather the strength of "like" as a dialogical indicator. It allows us to present the complete experience of a conversation, not just one of its component parts.

"Like" is more than a shabby substitute for "said" (as is commonly supposed), but a near equivalent of the word "meant."

Also, "like" is often a broker of diplomacy. In the sentence, "Tiffany, you, like, still owe me that $10, you know," the skillful inclusion of "like" eases a potentially confrontational statement.

The British do this sort of thing all the time with words like "rather," "quite" and "actually," and no one complains.

Our generation is not nearly as bad off as we have been told. Hardly a generation of jacked-in, zoned-out illiterates, we the bike couriers, the paralegals, the skate punks and the mall rats are actually a generation of poets.

With a sublime sensibility to the power of "like," we view our lives, indeed human existence itself, as a grand, eternal and ever-changing metaphor.

Jim Frederick is a senior at Columbia University in New York City, majoring in English.

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