Pissed-off Toff

Language – like – evolves?

in Language Watch

Pissed-off Toff explores the recent phenomenon of the ubiquitous filler word ‘like’.

Having come down from Cambridge in the early 1980s, my friend Johnny settled and married in Italy. He visits England from time to time, but after all these years sees it from the outside and from a distance. He therefore detects changes which, being gradual, are amost imperceptible to those of us who live here.

Not so long ago, he told me how he had noticed that when you ask young English-speaking people how they are, they don’t say “I’m all right, thank you. How are you?” They say, “I’m good.” Among the various things he does to make ends meet, Johnny leads gastronomic tours in the area around Rome. One day, when an elderly English client asked him how he was, he thought he’d try out this new transatlantic way of answering an old question. “I’m good,” he replied.

“The chap was absolutely horrified,” Johnny told me. “So I thought I’d try the same trick on other clients. And every time it was the same. I pressed this button and got this great reaction.”

* * * * *

However horrified older people are, or pretend to be, about “I’m good” (especially when said by someone who should know better), they won’t hear it often, for the simple reason that there are only so many times a day you ask other people how they are. And then, if you really don’t want to hear “I’m good,” the solution is simple: don’t say “How are you?” to anyone aged 25 or under.

However, there’s a new linguistic development which it is impossible to avoid, and that is the way in which people mainly in their early twenties or younger pepper their every utterance with the word ‘like’.

Today, at the end of a long walk, I felt a thirst coming upon me, and therefore sought out a pub, purchased a half-pint of bitter and took it outside. A group of students, all aged about twenty, was at a nearby table. Inevitably I heard everything they said. No. I didn’t hear. I listened. And every second word was ‘like’. 

Intending, initially, to jot down a few thoughts of my own, I already had notebook and gold pen to hand … but instead, I now scribbled down brief snatches of overheard dialogue. Here are a few examples, quoted verbatim.

“I literally – like – freaked out!”

“Some people are really – like – hands-on, and instead of – like – sitting around …”

“I like to give myself – like – an hour to – like – get ready in the morning.” [sic]

“I was – like – omigod!!”

“So anyway – like – we were – like – swimming in a pool, and there were – like – so many kids.”

“All the others were – like – way taller than I was … and I was – like – FUCK!!”

(Yes, I know. If I’m so exercised by ‘like’, why not be equally exercised by the way in which ‘I was, like’ is now used to mean ‘I said’ or ‘I thought’? But one thing at a time.)

Linguistically speaking, ‘like’, as used in the examples above, is a ‘filler word’. It serves no purpose; it has no meaning; it’s chaff. However, unlike most other irritating words or expressions, the filler word ‘like’ will be repeated hundreds of times even in a short conversation. You can’t get away from it. 

One middle-aged acquaintance of mine is so infuriated by the way in which his children, aged twenty-ish, say ‘like’ several times in every sentence, that he is thinking of imposing a 50 pence fine for every time they use it – an initiative which would result in a rapid and total transfer of wealth from the younger to the older generation.

Another friend has a charming but unmotivated 18-year-old son who rarely emerges from his bedroom before midday. He is hoping that the boy will do something constructive and character-forming in his gap year, and was therefore dismayed to hear the following announcement. “Dad,” said the boy. “I was thinking of – like – going on a roadtrip in Australia?”

Not only was the substance of the message unwelcome, but so was the form in which it came … the inevitable ‘like’ plus the rising inflection at the end, as though this vague statement of intent were a question, when it wasn’t. (Or perhaps it was. Perhaps the real meaning of the boy’s announcement was as follows: “Dad, I want to go and hang out in Australia with some mates of mine. You know, like in The Inbetweeners. Any thoughts?”)

And the worst thing is that once you start noticing it, once you are tuned in to ‘like’, you you can’t stop noticing it, you can’t tune out. Perhaps I should adopt my friend Johnny’s solution, and start – like – saying ‘like’ myself. It might be – like – good fun … make me feel a little – like – younger.

On the other hand, I think not. The solution, surely, is to get what fun one can out of these things. Get with it. Go with the flow. I mean, you know, come on. Language – like – evolves?