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So, Like, Yeah

speech bubbleWhat might seem like a coarsening of “casual American speech” is actually quite the opposite, writes John McWhorter in The New York Times (4/6/14). The verbal tick ‘like,’ for instance, is associated “with ingrained hesitation, a fear of venturing a definite statement,” writes John, “Yet the hesitation can be seen less as a matter of confidence than one of consideration.” It “softens the blow” of potentially unwelcome news “by offering one’s suggestion discreetly swathed in a garb of hypothetical-ness.”

So, using ‘like’ is like, sloppy, “only because youth and novelty always have a way of seeming sloppy.” Using ‘totally’ “mines the same vein,” John writes. “‘He’s totally going to call you’ contains an implication: that someone has said otherwise, or that the chances of it may seem slim at first glance but in fact aren’t. As with ‘like,’ ‘totally’ tracks and nods to the opinions of others. It’s totally civilized.” Similarly, ‘lol’ “creates a comfort zone by calling attention to sentiments held in common.”

The shorthand construct ‘because X,’ (e.g., because science), “recently celebrated by the American Dialect Society as the word of 2013 is just more of the same” — it’s “another new way to say, ‘we’re all in this together.'” Meanwhile, sensibilities about profanity have shifted from traditional barnyard and religious epithets to taboos on words that degrade certain types of people (e.g, the ‘N’ word). This is progress, John writes, because a “keystone of education is to foster awareness of, and respect for, diversities of opinion.”