A word has invaded American English. It has taken over the casual speaking of several generations under the age of 40. It is so common that hardly anyone who deploys it, no matter how incessantly, even notices it anymore. We are so used to hearing it that we do not even hear it. Or at least we try not to.
Once you do hear it, it is impossible to hear anything else. The people who use it might as well not be speaking at all because the word is so invasive and hegemonic. It must be stopped lest we discontinue all clear communication. It is a virus, a cancer, a killer of erudition. It reduces everyone who is infected to a babbling fool.
The word is: “like.” To understand the context and the way it is used these days, I will offer a typical example.
“I woke up so like thirsty so I was like where’s my water? But I looked in the fridge and it was like empty because people drank it up last night. Everyone was like where is the water so I can like drink it? So like suddenly it was gone but like no one said anything to me. So I’m like dudes like cut it out with the water thing, cause like without water, we are like dying over here. Whatever. I’m like ok, I’ll turn on the tap and like fill up a glass on my own. I’m like soooo thirsty I’ll like do anything literally. So I’m just like chugging away and thinking like sheesh omg I’m already like literally better.”
The word “like” appears here 18 times. And yet if you asked the speaker how many times he or she said the word “like,” he or she would have no idea what you mean.
If you wanted to phrase this supposed story in English, you might say: “I woke up thirsty but there was no cold water in the fridge. My friends drank it all last night. Instead I drank a glass of tap water.”
Of course that sounds pretty boring. That’s because it is not very interesting. You cannot take such thin gruel and populate it with the word “like” and thereby make it dramatic. It doesn’t work this way. If you keep doing this, you will end up speaking gibberish such as the above.
I’m guessing you know this habit. It’s everywhere and unavoidable. Every bar conversation. Every phone conversation. Every fake conversation between teens. It was once a habit of girls but this has spread to boys and men too, of all ages. It is a plague. It’s become a substitute for the English language itself.
For a while, people on the left protested that objections to the word “like” are fundamentally sexist. “There’s certainly an element of sexism here and the detractors of ‘like’ say it makes you sound girlish and stupid,” said the Guardian last year. That is complete rot today because men and women both use it. It is not gendered, if it ever was.
What’s astonishing about it is that it is easy to break. Pick up a normal book, ideally a classic, and read it aloud and notice how often this pestilence of a word “like” appears. The answer is none at all unless it is necessary. Then carry on a conversation with someone about what you read and do not use the word “like.” It’s a good feeling because it might prompt you to recall what it means to speak as a normal human being.
You are already on your way to a cure. Continue this for a few hours, through the rest of the day, and repeat this the next day. You might find that your problem is already gone. Swear never to repeat this experience.
You will find that following this exercise, you will begin to speak intelligibly again. People will understand what you are saying. And others will start listening to you. People might regard you as articulate and even intelligent again.
Think of the voices in American English to whom we enjoy listening. Think of Robert Kennedy, Jr., Jordan Peterson, Rachel Maddow, Ben Shapiro, Megyn Kelly, Ezra Klein, Joe Rogan, Matt Walsh, or Vivek Ramaswamy. None of these media figures have this problem. Listen carefully and notice how differently they speak from you and your friends.
I’m not talking about the content or the opinions as such. I’m speaking of the vocabulary, in particular the absence of this misuse of the word “like.” This is for a reason. Our ears and minds respect people who speak clearly and avoid fashionable word filler such as the proliferation of the word “like” and how it has become a substitute for erudition.
How did this all happen? Maybe it was the movie “Clueless” and the fashion for California nonsense. Most of these vocabulary fashions die out quickly. Think of terms such as “groovy” or “far out” or “the bomb.” Or more contemporary blather such as the weird labeling of something as “based.” They come and go and do no real harm to the language.
But the use of “like” is different. “Clueless” the movie appeared on screens nearly three decades ago. And yet we are still stuck with its verbal affectations. It’s remarkable how much staying power it has had. For years I tried to tolerate it, seeking some justification for it and believing that it would sweep in and sweep out, to be replaced by some other annoying thing. That didn’t happen. Instead it keeps spreading.
Why? ChatGPT says that its ubiquitous invocation is designed to “express hesitation, convey emotion, or provide emphasis.” Maybe that’s the intention but it doesn’t actually do any of those things.
Like all habits, the intentionality behind it was long drained away. Instead, it is deployed as a mark of grave insecurity. It causes anything you say to back away from reality, from clear description, from firm opinion, and instead provides a puffy cloud around sentences to give the impression that the speaker is not actually dedicated to his or her own statements.
And this might be the point after all. In a time of cancel culture, people have become fearful of saying anything clearly. We are encouraged to back away from anything decisive. Populating sentences with the word “like” introduces a gauzy ambiguity between reality and imagination. In this case, it is driven by pure fear of responsibility.
Fear is not the only motivation. It’s also about spreading a veneer of vagueness over all narrative descriptions such that the speaker is exculpated from any evidentiary demands that might otherwise entail the assignment of personal responsibility. It is a pose, an affectation, an attitude of indifference.
Consider a typical use.
“I was like so mad, but he was like whatever, and I’m like ok be that way, and he was like omg.”
What actually happened here? It’s not clear at all. Maybe words were exchanged or maybe not. Perhaps the entire incident was in her head and she is merely providing a narrative of an imaginary and entirely emotional feeling.
We cannot know. And that’s precisely the point. Neither she nor he bears responsibility for any of it. She was merely emoting about something that may or may not have happened at all. The word “like” in this context blurs the difference between transcription or evidence or even truth and some deconstructed mental-emotional space in which either nothing or everything actually happened. It’s part of the attempt to step away from actual goings-on into a meta-space of fakery that is not subject to any verification.
There is also a simpler explanation. It became a fashion, a mark of being cool, to use another deprecated term. If you say “like” a lot, it makes you seem perhaps younger and hipper and in touch with the prevailing ethos. I know in particular of one 45-year-old man with actual children who has the “like” disease and seems unable to change his ways.
A major problem in this case is that no one will actually tell him of his problem even though everyone is aware of it. They want to spare his feelings. This is actually cruel, however, because his habit does not make him seem young; it only makes him seem stupid by comparison with the public figures with whom he seeks to compete. If just one person would point out his proclivity, and provide a roadmap out of it, he might change and become a much better spokesman for his cause.
No matter the underlying motivation—fear, obscurantism, the desire to fit in, the deliberate dumbing down of high-level erudition, the longing for seeming youth—this habit is eating away at the dignity of language itself.
Sloppy speaking permissions sloppy thinking, and it works the other way too: when people stop thinking clearly they stop speaking clearly. This creates a reinforcing cycle of decline. This does not need to happen.
These times should be all about self-improvement. Purging the word “like” from your vocabulary, unless absolutely necessary and appropriate, should be part of that for every civilized person of any age.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.