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Jewish World Review June 23, 2003 / 23 Sivan, 5763

Lenore Skenazy

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Consumer Reports

'Like,' like, covers it all | Like, what gives?

And while we're at it: What gives about like?

The word "like" has been around a long time, but now it is taking over our language. On this linguists agree, parents despair and teenagers are, like, duh.

But I'm a "like, duh" addict myself. And when I stop to listen to my everyday chatter - and that of my middle-aged friends - we all use "like," like, all the time.

Is this simply verbal Botox - the hope that if we say "like" often enough we'll all seem incredibly young and vapid? Or is "like" truly a new part of speech, crucial to the way we communicate these days - and maybe even not that bad?

It's, like, both.

In the sentence above, for instance, "like" is a hedge. It's my way of saying, "The rest of this column may not quite prove my points, so don't sue me when you get to the bottom." Used this way, "like" lets me - and everyone else who uses it - get off easy while sounding cool.

In this respect, it reflects directly on the beatniks who first popularized the term. The beats used "like" to sound jazzy, to riff out loud. They reveled in being inarticulate. Perhaps, suggests communication consultant Sims Wyeth, that's because they were high. "Like, wow, man," sounds a lot more profound if you're wasted.

Nowadays, "like, wow, man" just sounds silly (and wasted). But "like" itself has evolved to sound deliciously conspiratorial, even intimate.

If you, for instance, tell me that your boss is, "like, nuts," you are winking at me with the word "like." You hope that I will telepathically understand just what you mean: That your boss is totally nuts, without you putting it that baldly.

This way, "like" creates an instant bond: I am expected to understand what you are saying without your coming right out and saying it. And that's one thing I really like about like: It may sound teenaged but it also sounds like we're best friends, having a ball because we understand one another so utterly. "Like" turns any conversation into a slumber party.

But, of course, there are also a whole lot of other ways people use like, some far more annoying. The one that Webster's New World Dictionary has most recently added is as a replacement for "said." "He's like, 'Are you going to the party?' and I'm like, 'No way!'"

The biggest problem with this use is that the listener cannot be entirely sure that the speaker actually said, "No way!" or if she nodded along while secretly thinking, "No way! I'm going to pretend I have to baby-sit!"

So "like" can be maddeningly imprecise. That's generally why linguists - and parents - dislike it. If your son tells you that the pen was, like, going to explode anyway, you are left to determine just how much his biting the pen had to do with its destruction. He's hoping the "like" will absolve him from the fact he's telling a lie. After all, he didn't say the pen was really about to explode. He said it was, like, about to explode.

Another way your son could explain this scenario would be to say, "The pen was, like -" and make a funny face or gesture as if he's holding a toxic pen. That way he leaps from telling you what happened to pantomiming his version. And very likely, unless the pen exploded on your brand-new white sofa, it will make you laugh.

This is the one way "like" has become absolutely perfect for our TV-centric society: It turns any sentence into a sitcom. "We were at the funeral, and my brother was like -" grimace, grimace. You can just picture Elaine on "Seinfeld" explaining events this way. "Like" opens the door for shtick. Then it lets you in on the joke.

And so, imprecise, evasive and overused though it may be, what's not to like about, like, "like"?

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JWR contributor Lenore Skenazy is a columnist for The New York Daily News. Comment by clicking here.


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