The Beatles said all you need is love. But, at the rate we’re going, the English language will soon consist of but one word. You guessed it: like. I know this does not entirely pertain to the subject of this blog which is largely about sustainability. But it does not seem to me that normal discourse in our language is going to be sustainable if like continues to metastasize in daily speech. It is ubiquitous in speech with everyone from age five to age fifty. Sometimes I am hearing it as virtually every other word. I never travel on public transportation anymore without my like protector: a little iPod. I caution my students that, although I want our discussions to be relaxed, I do not want them to be casual. Speech, it has always seemed to me, requires thoughtfulness, mindfulness. (Silly me.)
I wrote an essay about this more than ten years ago. Unfortunately, the cancerous progress of this one, horrifyingly annoying word – with a perfectly fine and honorable role in proper speech – does not seem in the least subject to any degree of circumspection at all in most conversation these days. Here, nevertheless, is my essay from The Distillery, a now-defunct literary journal from the good folks at Motlow College.
“I, Like, Like Ike”
Precisely because I am an unreconstructed post-Beatnik semi-retired hippie, part-time progressive Democrat, and nascent Buddhist acolyte, I have tried to be tolerant of some of the excesses of our age. The liberal apologia for graffiti made me wince, but I endured. I have tried to detach from my anxiety over the bristling conservative reaction to the self-actualization/self-help movements that are (quite successfully, thank you) leading people away from the mad froth of addiction. When the Pope trashed Buddhism, I smiled, knowing, after all, that His Holiness is, his ownself, a future Buddha. I am a laissez-faire kind of guy.
But there is an epidemic in the land. Worse, a pandemic. It has reached as deep into our culture as the Boob Tube or even Rock & Roll. There is a virus, a germ, a blight reproducing geometrically among our young people and some not-so-young. It is not Rap or alien xenophobia. It is the rapidly metastasizing mania that produces the sound “like” as often as every third word of every sentence.
This germ seems to be invading the bodies of American people primarily between the ages of 16 and 30. But, frankly, this bad craziness is proliferating into my generation and my peers: Baby Boomer, college-educated, professionals, man and woman alike. Over the course of the last several years I have been continually exposed to these succubi and incubi: at restaurants, at the gym, on the bus. It is quite terrifying.
What is it that so terrifies me? One fatal aspect of it is an utter lack of awareness on the part of the afflicted. These poor souls are thoroughly, eerily, without Clue One as to what is spewing forth. It puts me in mind of some sort of possession. Rosemary’s Baby scenarios should always be left to the paranoid imaginings of fundamentalists of whatever stripe you choose. But that this word seems to body forth without rhyme, rhythm, or reason, at least any perceptible to me, makes me shiver. Maybe it is aliens after all.
Now I have a high regard for our language, admittedly. But, as previously stated, I am also tolerant. I don’t rail about the ending of sentences with prepositions (except to my friends). The use of the subjective case when the objective is in order (often by well-educated, high-minded folks wishing to appear even more so, “such as I”) skives me, yes, but I try to let it go. Even when editors allow the hyphenation of phrases containing “ly” adverbs, I detach – with love. But this “like” thing is killing me.
I really don’t know what is causing this phenomenon. But I do know that I won’t lampoon this in my own speech because I know that many a stutterer was made just by making fun. (And remember what your grandmother told you about crossing your eyes.) I have even taken to avoiding the word in question in proper use.
Let us suppose for a moment both that this plague is actually upon us and not merely ephemeral. Let us also accept that we care. Then, tell me, what do we do?
I have wanted to intervene, but who am I? What do I say? “Excuse me, miss. Are you aware that you’ve, like, totally lost control of your speech?” Some nutty middle-aged man, probably just hitting on them, they’d suppose. I have tried, in my own small circle, gently to point out the flaw, getting a mixed reaction.
So how do we break the cycle? Just say “No?” Maybe Bill Moyers could interview Gore Vidal, or Emma Thompson could do a PSA. Hillary, perhaps, might like to broach the subject before some society of educators. I don’t know the answer. Personally, it has never been my style to proselytize. I’ve always had, as the French say so disarmingly, “other cats to whip.” But enough can become enough.
But, am I alone on this? Well, if you’re concerned, may I suggest that you talk it over with your children’s teachers, or your clergy, or your therapy or 12-Step group and see what comes up. Maybe the next time the “like”-minded, poor devils, pop into earshot you can gently but firmly suggest that there’s a better way. I figure that we are all in this together, like it or not.