Quiet Desperation

The last, final diatribe on an unneeded, unnecessary word


I, like, give up.

Once a year for the past eight years, I have written a column about the extra-grammatical use of the word “like” and its part in the ruination of the English language.

Each column has included the disclaimer that I am an imperfect grammarian myself, and I am not the ultimate arbiter of what is and is not good English.

But I know what I like, as it were.

I thought by now “like” would have gone away, but I see and hear that it hasn’t and now consider it a lost cause.

Therefore, this will be my final diatribe.

I refer anyone who cares about language to John McWhorter. McWhorter is associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, where he teaches linguistics.

He wrote “The Evolution of `Like’: How the ubiquitous, often-reviled word associated with young people and slackers represents the ever-changing English language” for The Atlantic (November 25, 2016).

It is far more insightful than I am capable of being, but I simply think “like” is an example of a dreadful verbal laziness.

There’s a title of a chapter in one of McWhorter’s books — “Words on the Move” — that summarizes the problem: “When Words Stop Being Words.”

It’s natural to hem and haw, and stumble a bit in casual conversations.

Everyone at a dinner table doesn’t speak in concise sentences, like they often do in films.

We stop, we start over, change in mid-word to something else.

McWhorter calls that “easing” language.

But for some, that eased language is all the time.

I have decided to concede to it after a recent experience in a dentist’s chair, which, for many, would be torture enough.

I was reclined in a chair, numbed to the gills, and with a contraption in my mouth. Helpless, powerless.

On one side of me was the dentist, who was removing a crown ahead of replacing it.

On the other side of me was an assistant.

(Both are very professional, highly competent, and personable.)

The assistant began a conversation that included three “likes” per sentence, at a minimum. It was the deep dish of agony, and I told Jennifer that it was worse than the excavation that was going on in my mouth.

I imagined I was hearing dialogue from “Clueless.”

It’s everywhere: I read an interview with Megan Rapinoe. I watched an interview with Emilia Clarke. It’s in locker rooms, art galleries, “cool” restaurants.

And it doesn’t mean a thing.

“Like,” used correctly, is overused as well.

I tried to get my students to say something else about their drawings than “I like it,” or “I don’t like it,” which are headlines without content.

I gave up on “cool” a long, long time ago. I have likewise given up on “awesome.” I think there is hope that “no worries” and “no problem” will eventually go away.

When a reader compliments one of my columns for its humor but adds “LOL” I lose my will to live. Almost.

McWhorter says that easing is “the way that one signals warm connection, group membership,” and that makes perfect sense. Gang members talk to each other like gang members. Not like Mensa members.

School started. Could a semester of English be devoted to the eradication of words that are no longer words?

Craig Marshall Smith is an artist, educator and Highlands Ranch resident. He can be reached at craigmarshallsmith@comcast.net.


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