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November 13, 2003 - 'The Evasion English Dictionary' - 2003-11-13

Broadcast on COAST TO COAST: November 13, 2003

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster -- evasive maneuvers in American English.

RS: Listening to a conversation on a train one day got Maggie Balistreri thinking. She became interested in the ways that Americans can say what they would like to say without actually having to say it.

AA: The result is an eighty-seven-page dictionary. "The Evasion English Dictionary" has ten entries just for the word "like." Maggie Balistreri uses a few of them in this bit of dialogue:

BALISTRERI: "And I was like, no way."


"Yeah, I mean, it's like, you know when you try to say something, but like."

"I know, I know. I did that the other day."


"Yeah, it was like, oh my God, I know exactly what you're talking about."

RS: "Now could you break apart some of the phrases that you used and what 'like' means in the context of how you used it."

AA: "There were very subtle differences between all those uses there."

BALISTRERI: "I think the multimedia like is the most popular. And the multimedia like substitutes for the descriptives of what someone else said or what I felt. So rather than tell you what I felt, what I meant, what someone else meant and felt, I will act it out. And so the multimedia like translates as 'visual aid to follow.' 'Did you see what she was wearing? I was like ...' -- [translation] judge."

RS: "And another kind of like?"

BALISTRERI: "The cowardly like. We're so accustomed to appeasing and not rocking the boat, and accepting every opinion to the extent that we never express our own without undercutting it. So the cowardly like translates as 'I disagree. That is, if it's OK.' 'I don't want to, like, tell you what to do, but it just doesn't sound, like, nice.'"

AA: "How about, on the page before here, you have the self-effacing like."

BALISTRERI: "I think when we speak, we're ashamed to sound as though we're bragging, and so if we want to state a plain fact -- something we do, something we believe in, something we value, something we believe is right -- we precede it with the word like and it signals shame. So the self-effacing like translates as 'virtue is shameful,' and examples are: 'No, I don't want to, like, betray her trust. I want to try to be more, like, considerate.' 'I work out, like, every day.' 'I volunteer for a few hours every week. I, like, care about the environment and stuff.'"

RS: "[laughter] You're pretty good!"

BALISTRERI: "And it's sad. That's the most heartbreaking of all of the likes, because I think it's not bragging if you state the plain fact and it's commendable. So that 'like' is the saddest of all the likes."

AA: Now take another commonly used evasion: "whatever."

BALISTRERI: "I think whatever is snottier than like. Like is more ironic and whatever is more sarcastic, overtly sarcastic. And what I prefer about whatever is that I can respond to it. It is overtly obnoxious. One category of whatever is the apathetic whatever. Translation: 'yeah, so.' Examples: 'She said I was insensitive, and I was like, whatever.' 'Oh, I'm immature? Whatever.' Would you like another example?"

AA: "Yeah, please!"

BALISTRERI: "The pseudo-impartial whatever. Translation: 'who am I to judge?' Examples: 'He doesn't work. He lives at home. His parents take care of him. Hmm, whatever.' 'She's dating the boss. Hmm, whatever.' 'He belongs to one of those religious, spiritual groups, cults, whatever.' Or the self-pitying whatever. Translations: 'why do I always have to be the martyr?' Examples: 'I don't know why it's called a group project, because I did all the work. But whatever.'"

RS: Then there are times when people say one thing but mean the opposite. For instance, when they say they "hate" to say something, it means they really have to say it.

BALISTRERI: "I came up with 'hate equals have' because I was having a conversation with an old friend and I said 'you know, I hate to say it, but ...' and he tartly replied, 'then don't.'"

RS: "Let me ask you, looking through your dictionary, do you have a favorite?"

BALISTRERI: "I think 'should equals won't,' as in I'll learn that somebody is learning yet another language and I think 'you know what, I should, I should totally learn another language.' And should equals won't in that, because if I wanted to, I would."

AA: Maggie Balistreri is a copy editor who was born in New York but spoke Italian at home as her first language. She's author of "The Evasion English Dictionary." She also has a language and poetry Web site, CafeMo -- that's c-a-f-e-m-o -- dot com.

RS: You'll find at link at And our e-mail address is With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.

MUSIC: "This Is My United States of Whatever"/Liam Lynch