Is it the new um? It is a sad side effect of the classic valley girl mockery, “Like, O my God,” in annoying So Cal upspeak? Is it a reason to beat the 60s pulp out of Shaggy?
Last Sunday, my husband, my son, and I attended a human sexuality conference for seventh graders. They spoke out against womanizing, the sexual expectations of teenagers, and sex as false currency in the search for love. As a group, we compared the media’s models of the ideal man and the ideal woman to our own. The content and the message my son received were superb. On my comment card, I thanked the high-school-age speakers for being unconventional role models for up-and-coming young adults. However, I think the 2.5 hour presentation could have been shaved to 1 hour. Why?
It sounded much like this:
I found myself switching my mind on and off, cutting out the “likes” in order to get to the heart of the message. Here’s one sentence that I can vividly remember: “Like, it takes like three weeks for a relationship to like turn, like sexual, in high school. Like, and it never like lasts. Like the girl starts getting all like possessive. The guy like thinks the girl should only like look at him and like nobody else. It’s like so not worth it.”
My annoyance was elevated, due in part, to the battle I’ve been waging against the word like in my home. When my children go into a monologue sprinkled with it, I repeat it at a volume loud enough to interrupt their speech. Or, I’ll count how many times they use it during a conversation and then quiz them on the grand total. They’ve never guessed anything close — always 30 percent or less of the actual offense tally. And most infuriating of all, I occasionally catch myself using it when carrying on a conversation with a young person.
I know: this is a writing blog, not a parenting or a public speaking blog; however, there’s a reason I’m bringing it up. When I’m not ghostwriting for clients, I’m working on my own short fiction. In my stories, I occasionally need to use a contemporary, teenage character. A large part of holding onto a show-don’t-tell mentality when writing is to use dialogue and dialect to develop characters. Unfortunately, I feel as though I’m strapped to weaving “like” into every piece of dialogue that comes out of an under-20-something’s mouth. Frankly, I’m running out of room. Flash fiction? As if that weren’t hard enough, now I’ve got to wedge “like” in there, too?
Frankly, I think it’s worse than “um.” Um has one meaning: I don’t know what to say right now, so rather than build tension with a pregnant pause, I’m going to utilize this little word that [coincidentally] rhymes with “dumb”. I suppose that past generations were annoyed by um, you know, and similar fillers, and they had the perfect right to be. But I believe that this phenomenon is more plague-like than they were. I think it’s time to become conscious of the word like, and to systematically bring it back to its intended uses, as a verb, a noun, and an adjective. It’s not a cork, caulking, Thanksgiving stuffing, or a tampon — so people, please, quit plugging, blocking, and constipating your language with it.