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Terry Woster: A short course on the word ‘like’

The word “like’’ is a fascinating piece of language.

(I’d add “don’t you agree,’’ but a professor of journalism more than half a century ago told his class never to start a story with a question. In the intervening 50-plus years, I haven’t I violated that rule more than a couple of times — and then only after thoughtful consideration. The professors who taught me back in J-school were gods of the minor-deity variety. In fact, they’d probably frown on me for filling my second paragraph with a non-essential aside enclosed in parentheses. In my defense, rules, every half-century or so, are made to be broken.)

Back in grade-school at Chamberlain, like fit nicely in short sentences that indicated someone had a crush on someone else. It took just three words, 20 or 30 characters, maybe less. This was long before Twitter helped us crank out those snappy messages. The grade-school equivalent of tweets was a verbal or written message delivered in person rather than sent electronically. The system worked back in fourth and fifth grades. Messages said simply, “Terry likes Nancy,’’ or whatever names happened to be trending on the playground.

Webster’s, my favorite print dictionary ever since my kid brother gave me one for Christmas many years ago, defines like as enjoying something, regarding something in a favorable way, feeling affection for something or, when used with would, wanting to have something, as in the Webster example,

“Affection for’’ is the way we used the word back in grade school, although it would have resulted in a fist-fight if anyone had accused us of using the word “affection.’’

As I pondered “like,’’ I discovered through an online “urban dictionary’’ that the word’s playground meaning remains intact. The dictionary’s first definition of the word is “a term used by many junior high and high school students for having a crush.’’ Well, there you go.

Unfortunately, in the urban dictionary I accessed, the second definition of “like’’ is “Same as said or spoke.’’ Back in fifth grade, I might have told a classmate, “I was talking to Ruby and she said she likes you.’’ In the urban dictionary version, I would say, “I was talking to Ruby and she was like, ‘I really like that Joe guy.’’

Even more unfortunately, the third definition of “like’’ in the urban dictionary says “In some teenage girls, a word spoken in between each word in a sentence. The dictionary gives this as an example: “Yeah, like, I think, like, N Sync is, like, sooooooo, like, cool and, like, dreamy."

OK, I can be as snarky as the next person. That’s funny. But it compels me to rush to the defense of “some teenage girls.’’ I read that sentence and I was like, “Hey, it isn’t just, like, teenage girls who use like that way. Besides, that example is, like, way exaggerated, dudes from urban dictionary. Let’s be, like, fair.’’

However, it would be, like, cool if everybody in the world quit using “like’’ like that.

Like in social media times has become a way to show we’ve seen something on Facebook. Not sure if liking something there means we agree or not, but there’s a “like’’ button, and people use it.

I sometimes use the “like’’ button to show approval for posts from friends or relatives. I never use it to show approval for businesses or web pages, although apparently that doesn’t always matter. Facebook often shows that friends of mine “like-buttoned’’ an auto shop or ice-cream parlor or movie theater or snarky web site.

Recently, Nancy said she saw that I liked a basement repair company. I have seen their TV spots. If we still had a basement, I might like them, as in “Would anyone like a basement repair? Yes, I’d like one, please.’’ But I never liked them on Facebook.

A week or so ago, my older son showed me on his phone that Facebook has me liking some goofy web site. That was the first time I’d heard of the site. I guess in social media you don’t have to like something to “like’’ something.