Like, These Filler Words Have A Purpose

I’m told by those who claim to know such things that the best campaign slogan in American presidential history was 1952’s “I like Ike.” It’s hard to disagree. For one thing, the words fit perfectly onto a campaign button or bumper sticker and make for an unusually sonorous phrase when spoken. But their effectiveness probably had more to do with that gentle and genial verb “like,” which not only rhymed with General Eisenhower’s famous nickname but captured the affable and nonideological appeal of the candidate. Supreme Allied Commander, overseer of the largest and most successful amphibious assault in military history: What’s not to like?

Anyway, there’s no denying that like is a versatile word. Noun, verb, adjective, adverb, preposition, conjunction, suffix: It can do them all without breaking a sweat. And its meanings tend to have something pleasant in common. There is nearly always a mild gravitational pull at work in the word, an inclination toward togetherness either of affection or resemblance. I “like” you because you are “like” my brother. Like tends to be a token of sunny optimism and harmony, the byword of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Yet it is a respectable word that knows its limits and chastely observes them, eschewing the Sturm und Drang and ambiguous risks of its more passionate cousins.

Yet I would be willing to bet that if the sultans of digital humanities could surveil the spoken English language at all times and places, and count the use of particular words, they would find that there is another use of the word like that appears more often than all the others put together. It’s well illustrated in this monologue by the Irish comedian Dylan Moran:

I remember conversations…. I remember people used to have them. Sentences—people would talk in them. People would say things like, “Oh, I was very worried about seeing him, but when I got there, he was quick to reassure me—and we actually had a lovely evening.” That’s 10 years ago—not 100. Now people just go, “I was like Uuuuuh, and he was like Duuuh!” That’s it. There’s no time for anything else.

He doesn’t exaggerate much. Serious students of language have a hard time knowing what to do with this all-too-familiar use of like. They call it “filler,” and it’s hard not to regard it as something bordering on the sublinguistic, an almost intolerable torturing of the magnificent instrument bequeathed to us by Shakespeare and his successors. For those of us who teach and spend a lot of our time talking to young people, the endless supply of self-interrupting likes that litter their speech and impede the flow of their thoughts can be very hard to take. As in Moran’s example, the pairing of like with a groan or moan or other interjection represents a complete defeat for language, abandoning the possibility of precise expression for the ease of the inarticulate. It is something entirely different from the “uhs” and “ums” that serve as filler to an Oxford don.

And it’s not just an American thing. In French, the word genre is used in a remarkably similar, and similarly annoying, way by the young. (See this example from a slightly cranky article in Le Figaro: “Il était comment?—Grand, genre vraiment grand.” In English, “How was he? —Tall. Like, really tall.”) In some Latin American countries, the filler is como, an exact equivalent to like. I’m told the same is true in the patterns of adolescent speech in other European languages. Something significant may be going on here, and as we are about the business of tracking Signifiers in this column, attention needs to be paid.

The redoubtable linguist John McWhorter has written entertainingly and well about the ubiquitous like, and he mostly approves of it. One might even be justified in saying that he likes it. Yes, he is willing to admit that its use does betray a certain diffidence or “hesitation,” a fear of “venturing a definite statement.” But in the end, he contends that like as verbal filler is better understood as “a modal marker of the human mind at work in conversation,” of thought in motion.

There is something to this. Since the mind chiefly works by means of comparison, of the endless juxtaposing of same and other, it can be said that we are testing out the metonymic fit of things as we go when we resort to like and its cognates. Like here resembles the academic’s defensive “as it were,” as a way of reaching toward a fresh insight yet also protecting oneself against the possibility of being taken too literally or missing the mark altogether.

But it seems undeniable to me, given the sheer profusion of likes in young people’s speech, that this interpretation is too generous. Instead, the usage points toward a certain detachment from the full meaning of the assertions one is making, and a lack of confidence in language itself, and one’s command of it. One doesn’t hear “He was angry,” but instead “He was, like, really angry, I mean like, berserk.” Or, in the more histrionic Moran style, “He was like…RAAHHH!”

I’d be the first to admit that performances of the last type can be hilarious and endlessly expressive from time to time. But as a steady diet? No. Even the strictly verbal forms of expression—like and its ilk—suffer from a similarly tiresome lack of focus when they become habitual and unreflective. Such ways of speaking then become a lazy and quotidian way of saying “as it were,” of larding one’s speech with qualifiers, of failing to weigh one’s words, of backing away from taking responsibility for the correspondence of one’s thoughts with the words used to express them, then retreating into the relative safety of saying that one’s meaning is like those words (and maybe unlike in other, unspecified ways).

So I would want to insist that a powerfully felt need for a kind of protective irony is at work here. When we are abusing like, we mean, and don’t mean, the words we are saying. Therefore, I would contend that the “hesitation” McWhorter identified is much more the central point of the matter, and that the indecisive behavior we are observing is more like a compulsive verbal tic than something creative in character.

And to speak of character: The ways we learn to speak will say much about the men and women we will become. There is a certain kind of resolution, of self-knowledge, of discipline in bringing the soul to a rational and settled point, that is entailed in learning to use the precise words one needs when one speaks, no more and no less, and to pronounce them without hemming and hawing. It is the quality we find in all great oratory. We need to foster that quality in our own speech, especially our public speech. If we do, we will discover that composure in one’s speech can have a feedback effect, and foster composure in one’s soul.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 26.1
(Spring 2024). This essay may not be resold, reprinted,
or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact
The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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