This afternoon my local NPR station had a program devoted to language — specifically, which words people love and hate. As with most things in this world, the hate:love ratio was skewed heavily in favor of the former. For every person calmly rhapsodizing about the beauty of “loquacious,” there were half a dozen Angry Grammarians incensed by “very unique” and railing against “I could care less.”
I’m amazed by how worked up people get over this stuff. Yes, I have long disliked the misuse of “literally,” dating back to my first day of college when my English 101 professor said the school had so many new student that it was “literally bursting at the seams,” but my emotional response pretty much tops out at “slightly annoyed”. Some of the folks calling into the program, meanwhile, sounded like they were ready to knife the next person to mix up “imply” and “infer.” And nearly all of them claimed that their linguistic pet peeve drove them crazy or drove them nuts. After a while I felt like calling in and saying, “You know what drives me crazy? People who equate the steady deterioration of mental health with a mild irritation over the use of “irregardless.”
The usual whipping boy in these lexical bitchfests is the word “like.” Everyone lambasts the word as meaningless filler, abused by unintelligible mumblers who can’t string together three words without having to stall for time. It’s ironic* that a word meaning “affection” gets so little.
Me, I like like. I think it’s a great word. And I suspect that those who dismiss it as vacuous are not listening to how it is actually used.
In truth, like has a fairly well-defined a widely understood meaning when used in conversation. It signals that the facts being related are guesswork and hyperbole, or that the dialogue being recounted is a paraphrase at best. It serves as a warning to the listener: Caveat Emptor.
Really, “like” is more than just a word — it is practically a auxiliary verb that puts the entire statement into a new tense. Call it the “Past Approximate.” If someone tells you they once ate fourteen eggs in one sitting, you recognize that is a boast; if someone says they ate, like, fourteen eggs, you know instinctively that the number was probably closer to five.
Critics of “like” point to it’s excessive use by youth as proof that every successive generation is getting dumber. The must be used judiciously, to be sure — I also like the word “callipygian,” but wouldn’t want to hear it six times in a sentence (well, depends on the sentence, I guess).. But perhaps widespread use of the Present, Past, and Future Approximate tense actually demonstrates the opposite, that kids today are more comfortable with nuance and subtlety than their forefathers, more aware that anything communicated by something as clumsy as speech can only come within spitting distance of reality.