Like, Not Like
Headmaster’s Routh Assembly Address
Monday 20th September 2021
Reading: Marvellous Daniel-Umoh (Elmshurst)
Excerpt from a TIME Magazine article:
The two oldest uses of the word “like” in the English language are the adjective ‘like’ and the verb ‘like’.
In the sentence, “I like your suit, it makes you look like James Bond,” the first ‘like’ is a verb and the second is an adjective.
Today, these two ‘likes’ sound exactly the same, so most people don’t even notice that they’re different words with separate histories. They’re homonyms, in the same way that the noun ‘watch’ (meaning the timepiece on your wrist) and the verb ‘watch’ (meaning what you do with your eyes when you turn on the TV) are homonyms.
The Oxford English Dictionary says that the verb ‘like’ comes from the Old English term ‘lician’, and the adjective comes from the Old English ‘līch’. However, the pronunciation of the two uses converged at some point over the last 800 or so years.
When I was at university, back in the Dark Ages, I had an English Literature professor who left a lasting impression on me. A large man with hair like a bird’s nest, huge dishevelled black beard, and slightly crazed eyes. And captivating. His lectures themselves were often much more dramatic than the novels we were meant to be studying.
He once appeared on stage bouncing on a pogo stick. One of those children’s toys; a pole with handles, foot pegs and a big spring on the bottom. Cute to watch a small six-year-old hopping around on one. Awkward to see your overweight 60-year-old professor careening all over the lecture hall stage. Yet strangely compelling. As it turned out, he was surprisingly good at it, and managed to deliver the first 15 minutes of his lesson without once stopping or falling off. In fact, after a while, we stopped noticing to the pogo stick much at all.
Which, as it happened, was the point of his lecture. He was talking to us about a playwright called Harold Pinter, who often scripted weird things into his plays, knowing that audiences would come to accept them as normal after a while. I confess, I have never been brave enough to attempt public speaking on a pogo stick myself, but as you can tell, I have never forgotten the lesson.
Neither have I ever forgotten something that Professor said to me in a tutorial one day. He had just returned some essays to us, but mine was unmarked and without a single comment in the margins. The only feedback was the word YAWN, daubed in what appeared to be red paint across the first page. “Clague” he said as he threw it at me, “Interesting people use interesting words, dull people use dull words. There one million words in the English language – you have no excuse to be boring.” It was another lesson I have never forgotten.
I did think he was exaggerating mind you. About the million words, not my linguistic laziness. I’m pretty certain it was a deadly boring essay. Anyway, I went and checked and sure enough, English has the most words of any spoken language. 171,476 commonly used words, with a further 615,000 definitions. Add in approximately 50,000 Old English words that are now obsolete, and there you have it. Over one million English words.
In case you’re interested, on 10th June 2009 the Global Language Monitor announced that the one millionth English word was “Web 2.0.” The newest words to enter the English dictionary this year, by the way, are: contactless, virtue-signalling, body-positive, and PPE.
However, back then to this morning’s reading. The word “like” has two meanings. I like your suit. It makes you look like James Bond. Except now, for those lazy in their speech, it seems to have 3 other meanings as well. Apparently, it is now a quotation mark. I spoke to Mr McClure this morning and I was like “Mr McClure”. And he was like “Yes Headmaster?” And I was like “Could you take Routh next week? And he was like “Certainly.” And I was like… You get the picture.
Secondly, ‘like’ has become what is called a discourse marker, better known as a filler word. “Like, when you are not quite sure what you are going to say next so you, like, stall a little bit in your, like, sentence, so you can like, make some more stuff up.”
And if that wasn’t enough ‘likes’ to last a lifetime, it is also now used as an approximation. As in, “I have been thinking of having a rant over lazy language for, like two months now. It has been annoying me for, like, years.”
Of course, all those likes may seem perfectly reasonable to you. It is entirely possible that I have finally completely morphed into a pedantic, grouchy old word nerd. But in my defence, how is anyone supposed to understand a well-known celebrity when she uses all five versions in a single sentence? I quote:
Like, I like her dress but, like, it makes her look too like, old. But when I like, told her, she was like “No way” and I was like “Yes way.” And she was like “Really? And I was “Like, it adds like ten years.” Seriously. There are 999,999 other English words to play with; give a few of them a try.
We have an expectation at Bromsgrove that only English is spoken around the grounds. That is not some xenophobic rule, intended to cause offence, or denigrate anyone’s native tongue. It is simply there to help many of you who come to Bromsgrove for, amongst other things, a chance to improve your English.
I might add that those of you who speak two or more languages are richer than the rest of us. Being multilingual is a powerful advantage in today’s world and I commend all of you who make the effort to master another tongue. You will go through life with more windows on the world, more insight into other cultures, than those who speak just one.
Some languages are easier to learn than others, of course. There is debate about which is hardest; some say Mandarin or Cantonese. Mandarin Chinese is also the language with the greatest number of native speakers. The language spoken by the greatest number of non-native speakers is English.
But whether English is your learned, native, or only language, what I want to do this morning is encourage you to master it while you are here. Because here are some more statistics:
Those of you who have grown up speaking English knew about 5000 words by the time you were 4 years old. By the time you were 8, that had doubled to 10,000 known words. On average, you have then carried on learning approx. one new word a day. Research suggests that you will keep on at that rate until you are in your forties, at which stage your vocabulary tends to stop growing. So that, by middle age, the average adult speaker of English knows and uses about 25,000 – 30,000 words. That’s less than 5% of all the words available to them.
Which means that even if you were born and bred speaking nothing other than English, you are not necessarily fluent. At least, not as fluent as you could be. That is why, even for those who are native English speakers, I encourage you to follow the example of your classmates from other countries and keep learning more of your own language. For the limits of your vocabulary are the limits of your world.
Even when you’re not speaking. Alone in your own mind, your thoughts come in sentences. Feelings, emotions, are instinctive, unshaped by language. But your thoughts appear in your head as words, albeit unspoken.
Therefore, the smaller your vocabulary, the smaller your ability to understand your world. I think it is a great sadness that native English speakers (and I daresay it is true in other languages too) reach a certain level of words they know and are comfortable with, and then fall into the habit of using only those phrases repeatedly. Settling for clichés, over-worn phrases, predictable patterns of speech. Lazy language, like “like”.
Hence why my old professor’s words still haunt me today. Dull people use dull words. How others perceive you is largely defined by how you communicate. Given that most communication is verbal, that means that your vocabulary advertises your personality.
Grow your vocabulary and you grow your personality. If you are writing an essay or a report, don’t just use a dictionary, use a thesaurus. Find some synonyms. Put one of those “Word of the Day” apps on your phone. If you hear an unfamiliar phrase, don’t ignore it, Google it.
Even if you are just messaging online, don’t rely on banal emojis or fatuous acronyms. L.O.L. Use words. New words. Odd words. Eye-catching, show-stopping, juicy, full flavour words. Words that actually do make the person on the other end “laugh out loud.”
Another playwright I studied at university, Oscar Wilde, once finished a message to a friend by saying “I’m sorry I wrote you such a long letter, I didn’t have time to write a short one.” The point being, it is harder to conjure up a few judiciously chosen words than it is to just spew out endless verbal candyfloss. But so much more effective when you do. It’s, you know, like, seriously impressive.
Based on their performance in GCSE last year, the following have been awarded Honorary Academic Scholarships and I invite them forward to receive our congratulations: Joshua Graesser, Oleksii Li, Sophia Meadows, Emily Miskin, Katie Murray, Sophie Pover, Alexander Ranger, Angelina Sanghera, Niklas Sturz, Jessica Whitlock, Hyuntae (John) Kim, Anya Sanikop.
U17 Cricket National Final
Our U17 Cricket Team contested the national finals against Eton two weeks ago. Unfortunately, despite a valiant effort, they ended up losing the match in the final over. However, I would commend the batting of Freddie Fallows and Tom Cosh in particular, followed by some excellent bowling spells from Freddie, Olly Davidson, James Bayliss and Lucas Ingram.
As I say, a nail-biting finish and a tough loss to take, given that the outcome could easily been different if critical moments had gone our way. Nevertheless, the team should be proud to have made the finals and I invite them forward to receive their trophies, including a presentation of the player of the match award to Freddie Fallows for his 3 wickets and 93 runs.
I am pleased to report some excellent results in the Royal Society of Biology Intermediate Olympiad. A large number of our pupils attained the Commended and Highly Commended categories, and I invite the following medal winners forward to receive their certificates:
Bronze: Antonia Gavriiska, Esther Lamidi, Daniil Ulasavets, George Vaughan
Gold: Irene Lo
Our Greenpower race car team are at last back in action once again and last week travelled to Aintree in Liverpool, where they won the Kitcar category by a considerable distance, also managing to beat several university vehicles from the faster categories. The team now progress to the finals on the 10th October at Goodwood. I invite the team to receive their trophy and winner’s medals:
Team captain Ollie Rodriguez-Harris, Will Jackson, Amelie Jackson, Jacob Moore, Ffion Wright,Harvey Phillips, Lucy Cattell Jack Ryan.
Amber Langford-Fennell has been taking part in the national Great Britain skiing series where she won the under 16 category; however, her biggest achievement was securing 2nd place in the overall women’s category.
Activities: Well done to you all on an excellent turnout on Saturday. It was wonderful to see so many taking advantage of the opportunities available in the Saturday morning activity programme, and then more than 500 of you representing the School in various sporting codes on Saturday afternoon.
The Badminton teams started well, with all our teams having convincing wins against Stowe, although it was a disappointing day for our Hockey teams with Stowe managing to win the majority of those games. Well done to the U14A, U14B and U16B teams for their wins though.
The Squash team lost 6 -2 in their matches, but better news on the rugby pitches, with Bromsgrove winning 10 out of the 14 matches played.
Elsewhere, the senior Netball team played very well in a Sheffield High School charity tournament, finishing as runners-up to Greenhead College.
And the Table Tennis teams played against Littleton Panthers, with the boys narrowly losing and the girls having a very good 16-8 win.
A reminder from Dr Ruben that you are very welcome to attend the Marmite Society Elite Academic Seminars, especially recommended for those aiming to apply to top universities. Sessions commence this week in Webber at 1:20pm; Lower Sixth on Tuesday, Fourth and Fifth Form on Thursday. Please remember to email Dr Ruben if you would like to attend.
Mr Richard Sollars (Deputy Finance Director of our local mental health trust) will be giving a seminar with Q&A on NHS Financial Management on Tuesday 21st Sept 1:20pm in the LRC Lecture Theatre. Economics and Politics students, plus Research Competition teams and future Medics are especially encouraged to attend. Email Dr Rimmer to book a seat.
Linked to that, the annual Research Competition takes place in the LRC Lecture Theatre on Thursday 23rd September between 5:30pm - 7pm: Teams will answer this question: “What should the NHS invest in, to be future-proofed for 2030?” Again, email Dr Rimmer if you would like to participate. Audience members also welcome, so please come along to support your friends.
Our highly successful School Magazine, Two Zero One, is under the editorship of Ioana Voicu and Arsenii Steshenko this year. They meet every Friday in H18 at 12:50 and would welcome input from all year groups. Any articles, poems, day-dream scribbles, or even historical essays can be submitted for publication.
We wish Tamara Kamal all the best when she represents Egypt in their Under 20 Football team in an international match versus Congo this weekend.
And finally, Miss McCannlis shares the theme of of this year’s House Song: Togetherness
Have a wonderfully wordy week, with less likes and lots more luscious language.
Please now stand as we say the Grace together.