September 18, 2021
nOBODY seems to like – or nobody with access to a printing press. This new, meaningless filler word is often used in newspaper letters and comments. Can’t it be eliminated somehow, you ask yourself?
But at least academic linguists have a weakness for something similar. You are even more concerned with it than most people. The average parent may see their children grow out of this habit, but college professors have an ever-renewed supply of 18-year-olds. Made a virtue out of necessity, they took a close look at the supposedly empty word. Irritating or not, they concluded that this is not new and anything but meaningless.
As an expression of amazement, sometimes referred to as “beatnik like”, it can be found in decades-old exclamations such as “Like, wow, man”. This is rare now; one scholar even considers it apocryphal, ascribed more to beatniks than pronounced by them. Another version is “quoting like”: “She said, ‘You can’t,’ and I say, ‘Yes, I can’.” That was noted back in the early 1980s and (like so many despised trends) it was associated with young women, particularly those in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles. This usage prevailed against them (“She says, ‘You can’t do that’ and I’ll go …”) and is now ubiquitous and uncomplicated.
The role of likes is more interesting than what linguists refer to as “discourse particles”. In this role, it certainly does what some older mortars criticize: it lets the speaker avoid committing to one statement. When someone says, “It’s about five miles away,” they are signaling an approach. When they say, “He’s something of a consultant,” it shows that the speaker may not be very familiar with the word they need. As early as 1983, Lawrence Schourup, a linguist, summarized these nuances in order to suggest dryly that “something similar is used to express a possible unspecified minor non-equivalence of what is said and what is meant”.
But Like’s functions go further than signaling uncertainty; a later analysis by Muffy Siegel, now of the University of Pennsylvania, found that “about” or “about” can be replaced with “how” only in some cases. In “She is about to break up with him,” this suggests a reluctance to share sensitive information. And in “Can I Borrow $ 50?” it mitigates a painful request. Introducing a whole sentence with “It’s like” also emphasizes: “My roommates make music all the time. It’s like I can’t even concentrate enough to do my homework. “
The grumbling about the same thing (that it shows insecurity or fear of attachment) falls short of the breadth of the use of this smooth word. The point of a discourse particle is to give the listener an idea of the speaker’s attitude to what he is saying. It offers a valuable second channel of information that overlays the basic message of a sentence. Speakers who use like are generally not stupid or thoughtless. Research has found that they are more likely to use it with friends and in environments they are comfortable in, which suggests that they hope this second channel will be picked up by a likeable audience. You are reducing its use in more formal settings – perhaps in the consciousness of what older, more powerful adults think of it.
All of these analyzes seem to give too much dignity. Why don’t people just say what they mean? Keep in mind, however, that it belongs to a class of words that has other, more respected members. So and Right have teamed up as much-criticized discourse markers, but they are loved by some of the most influential people on the planet. Both are typical of the speech by Mark Zuckerberg, the head of Facebook, for example.
And if these are not noble enough, remember that, as now and in fact, words often seem to do no more than give the speaker a few more moments to think about as much as he can. Or recall, so to speak, and so to speak, which can signal uncertainty or proximity, but do not label their users as fools.
In the end, strikes against like-minded people fall into two categories, one more legitimate than the other. The bad reason not to like likes is to associate with the usual suspects who purportedly destroy the English language: the youth (especially women and girls) and Americans (especially Californians).
The better point of criticism is that some people really use every fourth word. No word or phrase – not how, not relating to – can endure this kind of repetition without annoying people. So if you’re a similar enthusiast, don’t hang your head in shame. But as with most things, variety is the spice of the same.
This article appeared in the Books & Art section of the print edition under the heading “Click the Like button”