The other day in Glasgow I passed two young ladies in the street and caught a snatch of animated conversation:
“An’ I was like… an’ he was like… and it was effing so not cool.”
I recognised a Dutch accent. Wonderful linguists, the Dutch. Perfect, idiomatic English. Then I remembered a schoolteacher friend of mine, who is continually berating his pupils for using, like, the L word. “What does it mean? It means nothing! It’s padding. Verbal upholstery. The L word is even worse than the F word.”
That conflates two editorial difficulties for me, with regard to verbal upholstery. In the throes of editing my tome, I’m trying to cut down on the verbosity. I’m often struck by the pedestrian trudge of reported conversation in fiction. He said… she said… It’s so prosaic! Or do you use the convention of inverting subject and verb? – asked he. But that has an archaic ring. “La! Upon my word Miss Bennet,” said Mr Collins. Another solution might be borrowed from Boswell who recorded Dr Johnson’s conversation verbatim.
‘We talked of Mr. Burke. – Dr. Johnson said, he had great variety of knowledge, store of imagery, copiousness of language. – ROBERTSON. “He has wit too.” – JOHNSON. “No, sir; he never succeeds there. ‘Tis low; ’tis conceit…”‘
It’s like a film script. That conversation occurred on Sunday August 15th, 1773, yet has a rather contemporary ring. The following day Boswell recorded a conversation that might have occurred last week. I take a liberty:
‘I here began to indulge in old Scottish sentiments, and to express a warm regret, that, by our Union with England, we were no more; – our independent kingdom was lost. Johnson was like, “Sir, never talk of your independency, who could let your Queen remain twenty years in captivity, and then be put to death, without even a pretence of ‘ustice, without your ever attempting to rescue her; and such a Queen, too! as every man of gallantry of spirit would have sacrificed his life for.” Worthy Mr. James Kerr, Keeper of the Records, was like, “Half our nation was bribed by English money.” Johnson was like, “Sir, that is no defence: that makes you worse.” Good Mr. Brown, Keeper of the Advocates’ Library, was like, “We had better say nothing about it.”‘
You can see that the word “like” serves to invest reportage with the air of an enacted dramatic scene. “Like” casts a floodlight on a vignette. A literal translation of “like” might be “so to speak”, “or as it were”. Hence the scene assumes the metaphysical significance of a figure of speech. Shakespeare might have said, “Thou has nor youth, nor age, but, like, an after dinner’s sleep, dreaming on both.”
Then there is that other great upholsterer, the F word. Some people can’t utter a sentence without shoving it in, even mid-syllable: “I was effing abso-effing-lutely effed.” Whenever I insert it into my fiction (strictly and sparingly in pursuit of realism) I can sense the disapproval of my late father. He didn’t care for what the BBC calls “strong language” – actually they mean bad language. When I entered my rebellious teenage years and started cussing and swearing, my father would say to me, “Kindly refrain from bringing the language of the gutter into this house.” In my whole life I only ever heard him utter even a mild profanity once, and it was to recount an anecdote.
“Does this train stop at St Enoch’s?”
“Well there’ll be a hell of a dunt if it doesnae.”
You have to know St Enoch’s was a terminus. It’s a joke about buffers, like.