Monday, September 26, 2011

Like, to be, or not to be: that is, like, the question:

I'm just finishing up my 45th read from The List, with Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint.  It's been a great read, and I'm really regretting the times I've borrowed this book from the library, and returned it without having read it.  I don't think it was because it didn't appeal to me, or rather because I didn't think it would appeal to me, it just sort of slipped through the cracks.  But it's almost finished now, as I continue my march to the halfway point.

Portnoy's Complaint was first published in 1969, and takes place, for the most part, in 1966.  At least 1966 is the "present" time, most of the novel is in the past.  But I digress, what I found interesting was a small complaint Portnoy had about his on again, off again girlfriend, usually referred to as 'The Monkey':
"As she put it (before I forbade her ever again to say like, and man, and swinger, and crazy, and a groove): 'It was, like ethics.' "

I have to say I was a little, like, caught off guard by this sentence.  For some reason, I always had it in my head that the expression like, as is used today, originated in the Valley in the 80's.  But here we are with a West Virginia-born coal miner's daughter, living in New York in the 60's, like totally using the word like.  But, when I asked a few people when and where they thought this expression might have sprung up, one person was like, "I think it might be a hippie term, maybe the late-sixties."  And I guess if a word was a hippie term, it was probably coming out of San Francisco or New York, not the San Fernando Valley.

I am happy this term annoys Portnoy as much as it annoys me.  When it come to the word like I'm not sure which of it's present manifestations I loathe more.  For many, it has replaced 'um' or 'uh' and is like used as a nervous, like, pause.  But for others, it seems to have replaced the word 'said.' "I was like, 'how's it going?' and he was like 'pretty good.' "  Nervous pauses are always annoying, but almost everybody has them, so I really shouldn't fault anyone for that.  But to use the word like to represent speaking, well, that's just plain wrong.

I have always found it interesting why some words or slang terms seem to stick in our lexicon, while others fade into the sunset.  In Portnoy's list above, we see not only like but also man and crazy, all of which are no longer cliquey terms used by niche groups, but broadly used colloquialisms.  As to why they have stuck around, and swinger and groove have not, is anybody's guess.  Probably for the same reason we continue to say cool and awesome, but not gnarly or boss.

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