A few years ago, Maggie Balistreri overheard a conversation on a train so ludicrously over-peppered with the word "like" that she started taking notes. Not "like" as in, "I like you", but rather the irritating filler that, since the advent of the Valley Girl in the 1980s, has become prevalent in American speech patterns. You know, like, whatever.
Since Ms Balistreri is a performance artist - as well as a gifted and witty poet - she tried to reproduce the conversation out loud once she got home, but found that some uses of "like" were easier to emulate than others.
Soon she was categorising different types and came up with no fewer than nine of them. For example, the vague like ("This was back in, like, October"); the self-effacing like, where the speaker does not want to sound too virtuous ("I, like, care about the environment and stuff"); or the betrayer like, a signpost to utter insincerity ("Oh this is, like, so not an imposition!")
There is the undercutting like, used to introduce some modestly uncommon piece of knowledge without making the speaker sound too pompous ("That's, like, an umlaut. Or something.") The apology like, where the word acts as an admission of complete inarticulateness ("I was, like, wow!"). Or the staller like, the verbal equivalent of a thought bubble reading "Think, brain, think!" (Example: "You're from Belize? That's, like... south!")
These and other uses have just been collected in Ms Balistreri's book The Evasion English Dictionary, which serves as a deliciously revealing catalogue of the tics of contemporary chit-chat and also as a personal manifesto pleading for plain, literate talk stripped of "shibboleths of shamming ... that American dodge of a dialect I call Evasion-English".
To her, the Valley Girl talk that has now become alarmingly prevalent among adults as well as teenagers is not just an indication of linguistic sloppiness, but actually something more underhand. "Whether daft or deft, we use these words to duck the truth," she wrote.
Again and again in the workplace - by day she is a freelance proofreader and copy editor - she has encountered insincere blather in the form of phrases like "I see where you're coming from", or "It's a good point", which are just a cover for something less flattering. "There is a tendency in our culture to avoid arguing or disagreeing," she says. "It doesn't come from politeness, it comes from vanity, or arrogance. We never want to be wrong. And, in the process, we avoid saying anything."
In her book, Ms Balistreri identifies 11 different uses of "whatever", running the gamut of concealed emotion from jealousy to apathy by way of scepticism, impatience, self-pity and disapproval masquerading as indifference.
And she has enormous fun replacing various evasive words with ones more properly conveying the emotion at hand. When couples refer to "the relationship", for example, they would almost always be more honest to say "you". As in: "I just don't feel like I'm getting what I want from the relationship".
Her brilliant exegesis of the word "like" remains the centrepiece of the book. She has even performed it in public, in bars and poetry clubs in Manhattan where she lives - quite possibly making her the first person to turn a dictionary into a piece of comic theatre. She cites Cuvier's theory that from a single bone a scientist can construct an entire animal, and suggests that "like" is the English language's very own Cuvier's bone, "our culture's telling trifle... from which the less sterling aspects of our character can be constructed".
You could call her a word shrink, someone capable of unmasking whole layers of hidden meaning in a seemingly trifling interjection. It's a description she relishes, because she loves to rail against the psychobabble of self-help books and contemporary therapy which, in her view, validate many of the linguistic evasions instead of exposing them.
It is all part of what she sees as the infantilisation of American society, in which linguistic habits - along with much else -- are passed up from children to parents, rather than the other way around. "We have a cult of parents who want to be cool in the eyes of their kids, so they copy the speech of the kid," she said. "I think it is corrupt and pathetic. And with it comes inarticulate speech because a kid isn't fully formed ... To overvalue the way a kid speaks is a lie in itself."
'The Evasion English Dictionary' is published in the US by Melville HouseReuse content