Why you should care
Fed up with Americans abusing the word “like”? It’s high time we made a game out of it.
“Once again it’s my huge pleasure to welcome our many listeners … and to welcome four talented performers who are going to show their skill with words and language as they try to speak about a subject that I’ve given them — and they try to do that without hesitation, repetition or deviation.”
Thus begins the popular British radio show, Just a Minute, which has been on the air since the late 1960s, wowing listeners as contestants try to speak for 60 seconds without repeating themselves, pausing or veering off topic. By comparison, listening to a respected U.S. radio show on a recent Sunday, I was mortified that a discussion between guest experts and hosts led to the use of the same four-letter word more than 30 times within the first 15 minutes. I’m not referring to filthy language or innuendo; I’m talking about the cursed overuse of the word “like.”
American ears seem, like, deaf to it. As an Anglophile with a traditional British education, I was raised on the sacred texts of Chaucer and Shakespeare, Shelley — OZY, in fact, is named after one of Shelley’s poems, “Ozymandias” — the holy writings of Milton and Spenser. I was taught to revere the great oratory skills of figures like Winston Churchill. Writers all, they not only defined our nationalism and interests; they broadened the parameters and depths of our national identities and commonalities. Beyond that, they provided us with a language that elevated us to literary heights of stratospheric superiority over our American cousins. Listening to such Englishmen speak used to be a natural extension of decent, precise terminology, expressed thoughtfully and stated exactly.
And then I landed in America.
What began as a blip on Americans’ normal dialogue — thanks to the Valley girls of the 1980s — has morphed into a 21st-century plague that has underscored how lost America has become in the ability to utter a basic sentence of substance and meaning without constant and repetitious use of this four-letter word. Today, listening to the average American speak is a jarring, horrific experience.
I know that with all the major headlines worldwide, from terrorism to plagues to wars, this is hardly a major issue. But a nation’s ability (or inability) to express itself gives expression to its standing and purpose on the world stage. It radiates a level of sophistication and sophistry that makes it unique among nations.
So, is there any way to fix this ear-splitting, obnoxious refrain and cast it on the dunghill of lost and forgotten irrelevancies? My recommended medicine for this American lingual ailment: reality television. Yes, two wrongs could make a right, with a reality-style game show that has contestants try to speak for three minutes straight without using the word “like.”
When contestants fail to do so, they should experience some comic calamity that ends their appearance. Success, on the other hand, leads to extended stays — Survivor-style — and prizes.
In an ideal world, people will want to emulate the winners. Bars around the country could host local versions for enthusiasts. Rather than a trivia night, they’ll throw “Un-Like Nights.”
Like the British Just a Minute radio show, perhaps an American game show could make it trendy to speak beautifully. Young people, the worst offenders when it comes to using “like,” should also know that speaking improperly leaves a lasting impression on their peers, as well as would-be employers. Steve Allen, in his book Dumbth: The Lost Art of Thinking With 101 Ways to Reason Better & Improve Your Mind, lamented having recently met a young woman who peppered her sentences with “like.” “Although there is some amusement — involving the laughter of superiority, I suppose — in contemplating such language-mangling, there is a tragically serious aspect to the matter,” he wrote. “Many corporations, or even relatively small businesses, simply will not hire individuals who speak in this Valley girl teenage goofola manner.”
Developing a consciousness about the use of this word is the best way to stop abusing it, says Portland, Oregon–based public speaking coach Gigi Rosenberg. Filler words such as this — which we don’t even hear ourselves say — undermine our arguments and make us sound less mature, she says. A training tip? Ask a partner to practice with you, having them raise their hand each time you say “like,” and soon you’ll stamp out its overuse.
While I recognize that Americans will never sound like their English cousins, obliterating the overuse of the word “like” could become the basis for an uptick in American English standards that will in turn help define our future. Like, totally.
Rabbi Chaim Landau is rabbi emeritus of the Greenspring Valley Synagogue, Ner Tamid Congregation, in Baltimore.