Mar 16, 2014
Like, Get Over It
Posted on Jan 9, 2012
According to journalism prof Ted Gup, the prevalence of the word “like” in youth-speak is evidence that teachers have “condemned children to a common cluster of mediocrity.” But as linguist Geoffrey Nunberg pointed out a decade ago, “like” isn’t a tic or filler, it’s “a word with a point of view.”
Gup isn’t alone in his “contempt” of the word as it is used by teenagers who are well into their 40s. Surely there are plenty of people reading this who agree with the good professor that, “It is the byproduct of a culture that is loath to set standards, pathologically averse to confrontation, and prostrate in the face of precipitously declining verbal and writing skills.”
But maybe there’s a reason people continue to pepper their clauses with “like,” just as those preteens now learning the language eagerly adopt it. Maybe, if we can set aside our in my day prejudices long enough, we might recognize a useful and versatile expression.
As Nunberg, the linguist and “Fresh Air” contributor, explained in a 2001 commentary, “whatever critics and teachers may think, it’s more than just an unconscious tic, or a filler that people stick in while they’re vamping for time. It’s a word with a point of view, and speakers can shut it down when that isn’t what they want to convey.”
Like, says Nunberg, originated with the hipsters of the 1950s, and was spread through popular media to the broader culture. While it may sound mindless, the word conveys numerous meanings depending on the sentence:
Like is also used as a quotative marker, as in “I was like, ‘That is so uncool.’ ” That’s something critics hate for lack of understanding, explains Nunberg:
Professor Gup doesn’t agree: “ ‘Like’ is merely an adhesive that, ironically, holds together unlike elements. It represents the antithesis of forethought, is inimical to critical thinking, a counterfeit expression, a poseur emboldened by years of self-indulgence and pedagogical neglect.”
It is not pedagogical neglect, but failure to overcome a force that is too functional to be extinguished. It is, dare I say, arrogant for an educator to insist that only he can teach, that the young are incapable of innovation he may not understand. We may not all adore “like,” but maybe if we open our ears a little wider we’ll hear less to hate.
—Peter Z. Scheer
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