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The Word 'Like'

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Anyone who has watched American television, or who has listened to American teenagers speak, has probably heard this word repeated many times, and often wondered exactly what it means. This is an attempt to explain it.

Dictionary Definition

The Concise Oxford English Dictionary's definition is too long to copy down here, but the gist of it is that 'like' is used for:

  • Comparisons and to confer certain properties onto an object. For example, 'That painting is like this one' and 'It's just like driving'.

  • Expressing affinity, affection or another similar concept. For example, 'I like dogs'. The comparison category includes simile, as taught in English/other language classes.

Modern (Ab)Usage

As witnessed in such fine documentary films as Clueless, and most anything else that has come out of Hollywood in the past few years, as well as in almost any locality in the USA, the word 'like' has taken on more meanings than the word 'well'. One might even go so far as to say that its usage causes it to defy definition. Nevertheless, an attempt will be made to define it anyway. 'Like' is used:

  1. As an 'um' or 'er' word. For example, 'It was, like, really cool', or 'How can I fail English? I'm, like, fluent'.

  2. To express a thought or feeling while relating a situation to others. This is expressed in either the present or past tense, even though the event has already occurred. For example, 'And I was like: "Get away from me you freak!"'.

  3. To express something said while relating a situation to others. See note above for tense information. For example, 'And I was like: "Get away from me you freak!"' (Yes, it's the same quote as above.)

  4. To express something which the speaker feels that the listener ought to know telepathically. This is often, but not always, used in conjunction with the either the question 'you know?', or the question 'y'know?'. For example, 'It was, like, y'know?'.

  5. To partially confer the qualities of a, possibly strong, adjective onto the subject. In this usage it mirrors one of the actual dictionary uses, but is very easily confused with its usage in definition one. For example, 'He was, like, insane.

  6. To express anything else.

As can be seen above, especially from definitions two and three, the usage of the word 'like' is highly confusing, and comprehension depends largely on an understanding of context and one's psychic ability. Mostly, the confusion arises from the incredibly fuzzy way in which the word is used, much as the verb 'to go' used to be used for movement, speech, and so on.

As near as can be discovered, this alarming trend started in Beverly Hills among rich teens, has since spread across the USA, and seems as if it is now coming to plague the UK. Hollywood has not helped this situation by producing films and television shows aimed at teenagers, replete with 'realistic' teen dialogue. Some language researchers believe that this trend has come about because people, especially teenagers, are afraid to express any thought concretely, and that adding a fuzzy word such as 'like' softens this. The researcher of this entry believes that it is nothing more than a bad habit that no one wants to go out of his/her way to break, or to even realise that it exists.

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