Johns Hopkins Magazine - June 1994 Issue



By "Guido Veloce"

I like the word "like" and the reality for which it stands. Of course, it's also a plague on the language, as others have noted, but that's a minor quibble in an age when wars are "situations," foods are "products," we are all "victims," and the New York Times splits infinitives.

"Like" comprises a significant fraction of student vocabulary and is the only punctuation they use with any predictability, as in "my paper is, like, almost done." But it's not entirely a generational thing. I've heard it from an octogenarian aunt (of course, she may have meant "it's not like my day" rather than "it's not, like, my day"). I use it myself when I'm fumbling for a word and don't want to say "um," which would mark me as an academic, or "ya' know," which would mark me as either a '60s survivor, a professional athlete, or a New Yorker.

"Like" is a word for all seasons, and especially for our times. That's an important point because this isn't the first major 20th-century outbreak of "like." There was an earlier one in the 1960s. The present "like," however, isn't like the earlier "like." The latter was part of a slow, drawn-out style of speech, reflecting alienation and the absence of anything profound to say about it. Example: "Like, wha's happenin', man?"

The '90s version is part of a fast-paced, MTV style where words run together, reflecting the rapidity and uncertainty of modern life and the absence of anything profound to say about it. This "like" is a pause, a substitute for commas, and the cure for hyperventilation, all in one. Example: "Like, me-'n-him-went, like, to-the-beach- and-it-was, like, too-cool-except-I, like, lost-the-car-Dad." When uttered by native speakers, the first example takes twice as long as the second.

The '90s "like" intrigues me because it is both a way of sounding like everyone else who uses like, and of asserting, like, individuality, which may not be so different from the '60s, after all. There are, nonetheless, wonderfully subtle differences in where people place the word in sentences and how they inflect it. When there was a young adult living in our household, for example, I initially had trouble distinguishing between women friends who called herÄmostly because they all sounded alike and had the same first name. Then I started hearing the differences. One said "Is, like, she home?" another "Like, is she home?" and the third "Like, is she, like, home?" Anyone asking just plain "Is she home?" clearly wasn't a friend and meant trouble. As forms of identification, fingerprinting and DNA testing are far less precise.

Again, a comparison with earlier times is revealing. Part of what was so inventive about a figure from those times, Lenny Bruce, was the manner in which he took obscenities and, by repeating them and stringing them together, created a kind of word-jazz, almost a poetry, out of things you weren't supposed to say. In its new usage, "like" works the same way. It punctuates, syncopates, and emphasizes. It's a downbeat and back beat for a '90s kind of word-jazz, a rap music of the malls and suburbs.

It's not just the artistry of "like" that I like, however; I like what it says about the world in which my students and my son were born and most of the rest of us came of age.

Everything is like something else. Being like something else isn't, of course, necessarily bad. In one of my books that was, like, liberated so I can't check the reference, there is a passage in which the author, whom I remember as Calvin Trillin, or someone like him, recounts tasting a soup called "gazpacho" and beginning to say why it wasn't like "gazpacho" when he realized that he didn't like authentic gazpacho and did like what he was eating. At least I think the story was something like that. We try to look like other people, go to amusement parks that are like Europe (there are lots of variations on that theme: some Americans say that Italy looks like California, and I had relatives from Baltimore who hated Montreal because it was "like a foreign city"). We drive cars that have plastic that looks like wood and vinyl that looks like leather. We eat substitutes for salt, sugar, and butter that claim to be like the real thing. Frozen yogurt and imitation ice milk are said to be "just like ice cream," presumably because they are frozen and come in the same colors, which are like strawberries and chocolate.

In a world of "virtual reality" and supermarket tomatoes, "like" isn't a mere filler word, or, as language purists would have it, another sign of the decline of American English. "Like" is a statement of fact, of the way things are. It has a kind of hard-edged, realistic quality. It's a documentary word. Like is where it's at, ya' know.

"Guido Veloce" is a professor at Johns Hopkins.

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