Commentary – If you like like, don’t read this!

Joe McWilliams

How many meanings does the word ‘like’ have?
Once upon a time, when the world was a saner place, it had perhaps two meanings. That might have been a bit inconvenient, but certainly manageable. Lots of words in this weird language of ours have two entirely unrelated meanings. They’re called homonyms.
So back before things got out of control, we had ‘like’ as a verb used to express fondness, attraction, approval, as in “You like ice cream,” or “I like you.” The other use for this word is the one that appears to have led us into the linguistic twilight zone. This is ‘like’ as a preposition in comparing things. Something is ‘like’ something else.
Fair enough. How nice it would have been if it had stayed there!
Fat chance, though. Like is now a word that can mean damn near anything – or nothing, to the point of absurdity and well beyond. Many use it in place of ‘says’ or ‘said.’ That’s three meanings!
Then there’s ‘like’ to mean ‘think’ or ‘thought.’ Related to the above, but distinct. Four meanings!
One of the most common uses (or misuses) is as a mere filler. Something to stick into your sentence to fill space while you formulate the next clause. Not different, in effect, from using ‘you know,’ or ‘uh.’ Except that in combination with using ‘like’ for all those other meanings, it can result in a sentence or paragraph that is so littered with ‘likes,’ it sounds like a broken record.
But come to think of it, most of the people who could benefit from reading this probably don’t know what broken record is.
‘Like’ is, of course, widely used to indicate uncertainty. There seems to be an almost universal aversion to appearing to be definite about what one is saying. So you stick in ‘like’ to qualify nearly every assertion.
About the best thing you can say about this is that it is sloppy. It also makes for most unattractive speech; the people who do it sound unintelligent, to say the least. Of course most of them aren’t; so why do they tolerate it of themselves? It’s a mystery.
We seem to be in a race to the bottom here. The English language (probably any language) offers plenty of room for precision, clarity and elegance in expression. But rather than strive for it, we seem to be rushing away from those fine qualities, towards garbled, repetitive, poorly enunciated, inelegant and generally hard-to-listen-to stuff.
All, apparently, in an absurd and misguided attempt to sound ‘cool?’
Well, guess what, folks. It isn’t working!
You could say the same thing about littering, or excessive idling of diesel engines. Or texting while driving. Annoying, unnecessary and probably not going anywhere anytime soon.
Modern telecommunications have a lot to do with getting us into this mess. It’s possible to trace trends in speech – to say nothing of dress, eating, buying habits, general attitude and what have you – to specific popular TV shows. It starts with those and it spreads, for better or for worse. That’s an awful lot of power for the creators of pieces of otherwise not very important entertainment to have.
Yes, I realize this is a futile argument. But I like to think it can’t be altogether useless to mention it once in a while, if only for the record.

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