06 April 2009

Filler Words

The word 'like' has three meanings, but four uses.

That's pretty strange. Even more odd is that the fourth use actually takes away from the three meanings. Let me explain.

The word 'like,' when shrunk to its most basic, means 'to be similar to' or 'for example' or 'enjoyment.' You would use it in sentences similar to these:
  • 'Run like the wind, Bullseye!'
  • 'You ate that cheese like my dog eats his food.'
  • 'I like long walks on the beach, holding hands, and romantic comedies.'
These are the three uses of the word, but the fourth is entirely unlike any of the others. The fourth use is as a filler word. A filler word is used when you're speaking and you need time between your brain and your mouth, so you fill that empty space with something that means nothing. 'Uh' and 'um' are the most common, but 'like' is right up there with them.

This fourth use as a filler word has progressively destroyed the fuller meanings of the word. You might think that since it now has more purpose, it would be a more useful word. That's not the case. Language doesn't work that way. The more use a word gets, the more the word seems to fade from it's meaning. Usually this happens through time.

It's similar to nature. Left to their own devices, that is, natural use through time, a word will erode and fade and lose bits of its original meaning. Take for instance the word 'dreary.' The original meaning of the word in Old English was 'bloody, sad,' then it came to mean 'bloody, sad, frightened' in Middle English. Here we are today and it means 'dull, boring, bleak.' You could say it's the quintessential word to use; it began as a vibrant word full of meaning, now it is used up so that it has become 'dull' and 'boring.'

That is natural evolution of language. There is no need to stop it, nor a chance to. It's how language evolves and changes. It's necessary. The Arabic world has done their ineffectual best to halt the changing of language. The view is that the language used to write the Koran is the best language of man, so we need to preserve it. So while translations of the Koran are allowed, they are not the true text. There aren't even updates to the original language; it is used as the basis of language still today. But they have failed at keeping language stagnant. While the words in the Koran are still understandable and used today by Muslims, the common street language is very different. There is no way to stop the natural evolution of language, so there is no need to try to protect words like 'dreary.'

However, there is an unnatural pressure on 'like' that is bleaching it before its time. Just as pollution can erode the landscape faster than the elements alone, 'like' is being eroded through empty overuse.

I'm not saying all those who use 'like' as a filler word are dumb and stupid and should be shot. I am one of those people. When i'm talking, i toss the word around like it is salt for a can of condensed soup. It's something i am working on, because i realize it's killing the word.

This is not meant to berate or pressure anyone into anything. The only purpose of this blog, as i've said before, is to attempt a change in the way language is used, to help renew it, bring it to life again where it has died or is weak. I believe filler words like this are weakening language. If we, as a culture, took time to think out our thoughts before we said them, we would be better equipped to speak, and to do so without harming any words in the process.

(I don't think the same things about 'uh' and 'um' because they are not words themselves. They are solely used as filler words. Even though you can't erode them, i would still recommend not using them, to help yourself to sound more articulate. I'm going to try.)


  1. I know what you mean like.

    So evolution of language. :)

    It's natural, it happens, it keeps the language healthy... just like the letter I.

  2. "When i'm talking, i toss the word around like it is salt for a can of condensed soup."

    I like that line, it made me laugh. I have a long history with this word and have, in the past few years, been trying to tone it down as much as possible.