Wednesday, August 22, 2012

I, like, like "like"

I remember, when I was a kid, there were a lot of people on a crusade against the ever-growing domain of the word "like." It's burned off lately, mostly--I think--due mostly to the emergence of far more henious crimes against language and grammar such as "LOL" and "OMG leik me 2! u da bes!" But as you can see, even there I can't even manage to make fun of text-speak without invoking the power of "like."

To make things clear, I'm not talking about this in the Facebook sense. Fuck. That. I am not at all fond of the word "like" as an endorsement in a grammatical vacuum. In fact, the thought of someone responding to a physical object, opinion, or ideal, with a single syllable "Like!" makes my brain
vomit into my soul.

My affection for the word, instead, comes from an attraction to speech, I think. Like em dashes--which allow you to make a sub-point in what is the textual equivalent of a different, distinct, somewhat subdued tone of voice--the word "like" provides a beat that can add incredible subtext at the expense of just 7 measly characters (yes, I'm counting the commas and the space), a subtext that is easy to add with tone but--in the absence of "like"--impossible to add (subtly) in text.

Take, for example, these two (pieces of) sentences:

"After which, he makes the argument that this is the worst thing in the world."
"After which, he makes the argument that this is, like, the worst thing in the world."

The two come off quite differently. While the first plays as a pure and simply relation of the facts, the second allows for just the slightest injection of personal opinion (on the writer's behalf).  I challenge any of you to come up with a more succinct way to communicate the sentiment "but I am rather skeptical of this information I am relaying to you."

But that is just peanuts compared to "like"'s power when it comes to telling stories, oral or otherwise. Again, I haven't heard anyone rail against this in a while, but there's often an argument made that the word "like" is rapidly annexing territory previously held by the word "said." Allow me to clarify: the word "like" is rapidly annexing territory previously held by the word "said"; there is argument as to whether or not this is a bad thing, or at least there will be now that I am going out of my way to say that it is not a bad thing. It is, in fact, a good thing; "said" should have never had that territory in the first place.

Again, let's do the example thing.

"And then he said 'You don't understand a damn thing you are saying!'"
"And then he's all like 'You don't understand a damn thing you are saying!'"

When you convey a story to someone, what are the chances that you remember exactly what someone said? Less than you would care to admit, I imagine. What are the chances, on the other hand, that you remember exactly the way someone came off? Much higher. Even if you don't, you know how you want to spin it, but more on that later.

This is the real value of the word "like." It paints a full picture, or rather, compels the listener to paint one. "And he said 'I don't want to'" tells us what he said. "And he was like 'I don't want to'" gives you a broader picture of how he came off, what he said but also how he might have been standing, what his facial expression might have been, how much whine there was in his tone of voice. Like prefaces imitation, something distinctly different relaying a literal quote.

In this way, "like" also gives the listener a bit of agency in the conversation. "He was like" compels the listener to imagine what "he was like" based on the listener's own experience. "He said," on the other hand,  compels the listener to note the specific wording of a certain phrase, and perhaps to fall asleep if that wording isn't sufficiently interesting.

Now, (oh hey look, another conversationalism!) all this is not to say that "said" doesn't have its place. It does (like in relaying quotes), but in every day conversation "was like" is probably more accurate. Let's say, for instance, that you are telling a story with an inherent spin (yours) to it. (You are. You are a human being; this is what we do.) "Like" is of value here as well. In additon to prefacing an imitation, "like" indicates that the following information is a loose interpretation. "He was like" does not promise, or even suggest, that it will be followed by an exact quote.

That's not to say "like" lets you say whatever you please, but it does sufficiently telegraph that the information is coming from a biased source (a person). In this way, one might argue that "like" is not eroding the usefulness of "said" but in fact strengthening it. Using "was like" in loose, conversational, relations of events frees up "said" for its literal meaning. You know, indicating that someone actually said a thing.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I am fond of "like" both as a word and a concept. Its valley girl connotations (I swear to god that I am not actually trapped in the 90s, though it may seem that way) completely undermine its very legitimate value in relaying information.

Postscript: Yeah, I think I believe all this, but really this was just an experiment in me vomiting all over the page about what I think about this particular twist of grammar. This is what I do for fun sometimes. Fucked up, right?