Monday, August 6, 2007
Is “basically” the new “like”?
Last year I enthusiastically attended a meeting to help promote an Engineers Without Borders project in hopes that our group might generate some fundraising. Our then-president took the microphone and began (paraphrased), “Basically, Engineers Without Borders is basically a club that basically does projects basically anywhere in the world, basically. So, basically, we are trying …”
And it’s everywhere and although I am a student I will not describe it as fingernails on a chalkboard, much too trite and not quite right. Rather, I heard once that the IRA will sometimes influence people by putting a 9 mm drill bit through the kneecap. A standard tool used for abject malevolence. That’s what “basically” is: momentary, piercing pain but it does leave a clean hole. Growing in popularity, I started to feel that it was ready to take over colloquial language when our petite president spoke from that podium. It was an onslaught of “basically” – a mad woman with a nail gun pinning me to my chair with the vicious repetition of the Automatic Kalishnikov 47 with all the cruelty of its inaccuracy.
It is as painful and repugnant as the omnipresent “like”.
Best I can recall, “like” had a colorful birth. Born in the valley, it came on the public stage thanks to Moon Unit Zappa. Both funny (because I was a sophomore at the time) and annoying, it made its mark. However, as much as I might have hoped, it didn’t return home to the valley and fade for good. No, it grew and took hold of the language for generations in the way a vine envelops a home. It grew like a weed. “Like” made its move from fad to cultural fabric.
In my senior year, I got a reprieve. As an exchange student to France, I left for the gran banlieu of Paris to spend a lovely year in Chantilly. Rich in heritage and I could feel just as proud as the French when I walked by the chateau and museum (formerly the Duke Conde’s stables) because I called Chantilly my home. The French and I shared an affinity for language.
I returned to the US to the ever festering “like”. It was in the air, the only stench in the suburban utopia of Naperville. However, most of the people I interacted with for that year between high school and college were much older and had not caught the disease. Then I headed for St. Louis University. And to my good fortune everything happens a bit later in St. Louis. When I was there in 1986 tie-dye was on its way out and disco was the new thing. (I recently heard they are giving up pastel polos to explore grunge music.)
It wasn’t until I returned to France again in 1987 with the university’s program in Orleans, a well-reputed program with students from all over the US, I mixed and mingled again with the contemporary culture. The disease had taken a strong-hold. It seemed unavoidable. Fortunately, there were quite a few students from St. Louis and I could find a reprieve when I wanted to speak English (and discuss history in the present tense). Besides I was there to speak French – best done with French people. Although I spent most my time with the frogs, we did meet up as a group quite a bit, bonfires on campus to hang out and teach the locals how to drink for the sake of drinking. American students chatting about in French, translating word for word and guess what word came up three times in every breath? “Alors, c’est comme … comme … comme.” Affereux! Honteux.
I confess that I do find myself, on rare occasions, slipping out a “like”. I hope all of you that love the language like I do will forgive me. As such I do not judge; if that is your style, then express yourself. I will also confess, I gracefully avoid social interaction with the style just like I also prefer to choose a different path than through a mine field.
In 1990-1991, I lived in Glasgow, Scotland and “like” had not infected the language. On my subsequent trips to Great Britain, I observed it did begin its incubation in London, the sickness broke out and headed north. It doesn’t seem to have become the full blown epidemic as in the states, still it is pervasive. It is also not so poignant. With their accent, the drill bits and nails are traded in for rotting fruit. Not piercing, a different sort of pain – it is still foul. Add the cockney accent to the “like” and it’s like being pelted with frozen rotting fruit. The deep gutural and lazy-jowl speech adds that bludgeoning affect.
I'm assuming a news anchor should command the language; I think that's not too much to ask. And yet, I recently lost hope for our culture when in an interview with Katie Couric, she gasped and said, “I have days when I'm like, `Oh my God, what did I do?'” I was wondering what the producers were doing? One of them has to be old enough to have seen “My Fair Lady” or "Pygmalion"; it’s their job to find solutions to these problems.
And now, “basically” is the new arrival. But is it a rival? Will “basically” replace “like”? Would that be better or worse? Four syllables (oft said in only three) versus one? An adverb versus the various parts of speech for “like”? A debate of which is the lesser of evils seems futile when in the end you know you will be machine gunned down by its misuse and excessive use. In fact, I think it will be worse. Both will remain to terrorize our ears and shred our pride of the language. The future? Basically, it’s like a chancre to add to the herpes.