Sunday, November 17, 2013 | Categories: Michael's Essays
Like, I hate when they like tell me not to say like, you know? (Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images)
I was explaining an aspect of Emersonian universalism to a testy teenager of close acquaintance the other day, when he responded with "Man, that's solid."
Well, I nearly upended my Veal Sorrentino onto the Carrara marbled floor of our palazzo.
I could scarce believe my hearing. Solid, as in "that's solid" coming from the mouth of a restless, modern,18-year-old was like the Pope exclaiming, "I'm hip, man."
These are expressions from a bygone era remembered dimly only by social anthropologists. It was Fifties and Sixties lexicon associated mostly with cool jazz and overheated Beatniks. In other words -- my time.
The teenager knew exactly what the word meant. He used it in the same sense that I did 50 years ago.
When I explained the etymology of "solid" he got it right away. Sometimes he will even use the word "cool" in its proper context.
We grownups can be awfully rigid when it comes to language. We are uncomfortable with new forms of speech. We like the old ways; we're not crazy about change.
This is especially true when it comes to the way our children, especially teenagers, speak. It's not enough that we grownups have co-opted their holidays such as Halloween, formalized their play time and hijacked their superheroes for our stupid movies; now we complain endlessly about the way they talk.
I confess some of their speech patterns make me want to swallow Drano. For example, "totally" as in "that's awesome---totally." "You know" I'm not crazy about, but we all use it. And "basically" and "random" and so on. But that's the way they speak.
It drives parents and teachers and Emma Thompson, the Oscar-winning actress, crazy. She recently said that young people who say "like" a lot sound stupid and make her feel "insane."
When young people -- and oldies to be sure -- use or overuse the word like, they -- we -- are actually engaged with an ancient form of grammar.
Like and the like are called fillers or vocalized pauses and they serve a useful purpose. Their grammatical function is to sustain the regulated flow of a sentence by giving the speaker a slight pause to gather a thought.
Not even the great Irish bardic storytellers could go on forever seamlessly from one glorious sentence to another without some kind of syntactical rest area. Well, maybe the Irish could -- but we can't.
John Ayto, the erudite editor of the Oxford English Dictionary says the use of fillers has nothing to do with sloppy or lazy language.
"We all use fillers because we can't keep up highly-monitored, highly-grammatical language all the time. We all have to pause and think."
The overuse of "like" is something of a badge for young people. Teenagers want, above all else, to belong. To feel part of a group, which shares the same values, interests and yes, linguistic tics.
The late master of the English tongue Christopher Hitchens, while not wholly approving of "like", thought there was some way to keep it in use without allowing it to reduce everyday vocabulary.
Try hard, he urges, to substitute "as" or "such as."
Which is like trying to quit smoking.
I have a beautiful hall monitor who tabulates my daily usage of "like." "That's number four this morning," she will announce. Which is like, very annoying. Which leaves like, the word itself, where? Simply dangling in a syntactical nether world?
What the hell is the correct usage?
The legendary editor and investigative reporter Walter Stewart cleared it up for me decades ago: "Whatever its function, like is never a conjunction."