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Mutt & Jeff: It’s like…

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Ask my students — I’m a stickler when it comes to using the word “like.”

Generally, it’s prohibited in my classroom. At least when it’s meant to stand for veritably — in other words, as an intensifier. If a person wants to intensify a statement, it doesn’t help to fuzzy it up. So my poor students have to put up with me. I try to be direct, but courteous. “Could you please say that again without using the word like?” I’ve trained myself not to say it, but once in a while it still slips out. When I want to be accepted.Because it’s hip to be vague. Except being hip is to be in the know. If I’m hip I really know what’s going on; I’m dialed into the program. I’m aware. I know what’s what. Using like as a sign of hipness started in the fifties. Seymour Krim’s “The Beats.” Ferlinghetti’s “Coney Island of the Mind.”

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“If you would be a poet, create works capable of answering the challenge.” But 60 years later it has worn a little thin. It hasn’t stood the test of time. When I use the word now, it’s because I don’t know what to say.

A while back I witnessed a conversation between two college students, a girl and boy, on the St. John’s campus in Santa Fe. He was trying to make an impression. She looked up to him expectantly as he announced, “I’m like . . .  I mean, it’s like . . .  Like, I’m like—” And so on. She didn’t cringe, but gracefully endured his heartbreaking display of ineptitude. Maybe they eventually got it figured out, this big-hearted lad and his bright-faced lady companion. There was something ardent, brave and pure he wanted to express. She was hoping for something deep.           

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John Lydgate (15th Century) was the first to call comparisons odious. Shakespeare parodied him by calling them “odorous.”  The word like offers to enrich us by making an explicit comparison. Eager to know more, we anticipate the junction of disparate ideas, the prospect of new knowledge, the clarification of an implied relationship. Like is an enticement. A promise of increased understanding. It’s the lynchpin in the figure of speech known as simile. We delight in verisimilitude. We admire an artist who can capture a likeness. Mimesis. It’s so real. But when the likeness is marred, we adjudge the comparison odious.

One thing is like another. That’s the basis of simile. The lights come on. We notice shared characteristics and that delights us—delight and wonder such as Adam expressed when Eve was brought to him. “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.”

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May I bring to our remembrance a handful of similes that have stood the test of time? “Let us go then, you and I, / When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherised upon a table . .” –T. S. Eliot. “Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world / Like a Colossus . .” –William Shakespeare. “You may see their trunks / Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground / Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair / Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.” –Robert Frost.

In contrast, how abysmal to proffer a handful of nothing as if to say, “There is nothing in my experience that correlates to anything else.” To offer only gravel or a handful of dust. No communication. No shared experience. It’s like making an argument with only one premise, or giving up before even trying. How unsatisfying.

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Badgett shares this column with fellow conservative Paige Meredith.

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