Archive for May, 2009

As You, like, Like it

I was listening to my nine-year-old grandson this morning as he described to his grandmother a practice session at football:

“Another thing I like to do is, like, when another boy is, like, just about to, like, kick the ball I, like, rush in and tackle him. That,” he added, “is really cool! I really, like, like doing that.”

How on earth, I thought to myself, did I manage, when I was his age, without this peculiar piece of verbal padding? And where did it, like, come from? I suppose its equivalent in my day was the  simple “um“.  Or possibly an “er“, or the slightly more high-faluting “ah” beloved of Ann Widecombe.

Come to think of it, though, modern English speech is full of such meaningless litter. There is the rather tentative “I mean” and the ubiquitous “you know” made particularly fashionable by our last prime minister. (In Mr Blair’s case it was,  I presume,  intended to sound ‘matey’.  Mrs Thatcher, on the other hand, used it in an entirely different way, intended to convey her conviction that you very obviously didn’t know. With her it would always begin a sentence, as an alternative to “Look . . .”, whereas with Blair it was always, you know, in the middle.)

And then there is that curious sound which started life as the six-word phrase “do you know what I mean?” but which, with the aid of a glottal stop, has now become compressed into a single verbal blur; something like “joonowo’imeen”.

I knew a distinguished economist once who found it almost impossibe to start a sentence, or even a subordinate clause, without the words “in fact . . .”. The more speculative his pronouncement, the more he was likely to use it. In fact I once heard him preface a reply to a question with “In fact, in fact, . . .”. But that’s an economist for you.

I suppose such phrases have a function, in that they give one a moment in which to think of what to say next. But I feel sure our ancestors managed to converse without their aid. Try to imagine Hamlet saying:

“To be or, like, not to be. I mean, that is, you know, the question. Whether ’tis, like, nobler ….”