Simulacra and Simile: This Post is Really, Like, Super Important

“That really, seriously just happened, like, literally, two minutes ago.”

As an English major and an adjunct professor of English/Humanities, many people make some pretty classic assumptions about me: I’m a grammar nerd, I’ve read every classic work of Literature you name from memory, and I detest slang. Well, none of those are true: I haven’t, until recently, paid enough attention to grammar, I read more Said, Marx, and Spivak than Defoe, Shelley, or Austen in my MA program, and I love how slang functions and defines a culture.

I want to put this post into context. Over the last one and a half years, I have made three trips to Germany to visit my gf. ZeitDuring that time, I have been listening to Pimsleur German audio in my car to improve what remains of my very limited high school and college German language and grammar skills. I’m going to focus on two characteristics about the German language that distinguish it from American slang, and reveal a particularity about American culture.

First, you have to listen to the entire German sentence to know what is happening! (Because the verb comes at the end. For instance, in the last sentence, the word “listen” wouldn’t come until the end). Second, time is very, very important, and usually occurs before location or the verb. The more specific, the better. So, what does this tell us about American slang?

Well, our discourse is quite general and often hyperbolic. Words such as “really,” “seriously,” and “literally” are attempts to make a language that is general, specific. They are adjectives that replace specific knowledge, or rather, the communication and therefore required memorization of specific times and places. Let’s take the intro quote as an example: the words “really,” “literally,” and “seriously” are added for emphasis. Again, they serve to bolster the non-specificity of general language. But why? Why do we need these words to reenforce the measurement of time?

The first reason is because of the event’s relation to the present. Something that just happened only occurred within a specific time period. SimulacraA phenomenon occurring sixty minutes ago did not just happen. Although, something occurring within 15 minutes may have just happened. To make sure to close that gap we add the adjective “seriously” to emphasis the now-ness of the event. With the advent of “seriously,” the time gap then shrinks to a minute or two of now-ness. The term “literally” conveys a sense of believability, both on the speaker and listener’s part. It is not that we do not trust what the other has to say, but simply that we do not trust that a phenomenon happened to them—something I will discuss later. What is at the core of needing these repeated and quite superfluous emphases? One simple word: “like”.

“You should, like, seriously read this.”

Like is a simile (“a figure of speech involving the comparison of one thing with another thing of different kind; method of comparison”); it is also “similar to” and “in the manner of,” “appropriate to,” “as though,” and finally, informally, “used in speech as a meaningless filler or to signify the speaker’s uncertainty” (all definitions from my Mac Dictionary). The last one is my favorite, yet it does not convey the true cultural significance of the word like. For that, we need another example. This time with a verb.

Bill: “What’s up? What did you do today?”
Gill: “Oh, nothing much. We, you know, like, threw the football around a bit.”

I know you’ve heard this conversation. You may even have had this conversation! No worries, though. Slang is a significant method of socialization when eliminating those not, um, biologically speaking, the most fit for secure reproduction, e.g. “cool”. Ahhemmm… Now that we got that out of the way, I ask you: What did Gill do today? Did he throw the football around? Well, technically, no. When Gill uses the simile “like,” he states that he did something like throwing a ball around. He performed a simulation; therefore, he may or may not have thrown the football around. We don’t know. So, he didn’t throw the football around. So what? Well then, smarty-pants, if Gill is stating to you that he didn’t do something that he says he did, then how does he reverse that negative “not doing”? He uses emphasis. Now watch.

Bill: “What’s up? What did you do today?”
Gill: “Oh, nothing much. We, you know, like, threw the football around a bit. Man, once, Lill threw it really hard and I had to run superfast to, like, just catch it, you know?! That was crazy.”

Finally! Gill has provided some much needed emphasis in order to substantiate his earlier claim that he was throwing the football around. The words “really” and “superfast” provide hyperbole that negates this nothingness of simulation, proving to his friend that he actually did do something! He did so much of something that he really did this something! And it was amazing! Really!

What’s important in this post and our understanding of slang is not to dismiss it as insipid, stupid, useless, or a tripe form of communication. Rather we should notice that those overused adjectives betray the postmodern value of a simulation—as nothing really happening directly to us; as the televised launch of the Gulf War; as Jane Austen updated with zombies. The point is: you don’t need anything to actually happen to you (although it does make events richer). You don’t really need to read Pride & Prejudice to get the zombie version, and you don’t really need to hold a gun to be cynical/sympathetic of war. So, when our state of non-being and non-experiencing bumps in to reality, we swing the pendulum back and must overuse hyperbolic adjectives in order to prove that we actually lived…

Thanks for reading everyone. I would love to read your comments. Really, I would.

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172 thoughts on “Simulacra and Simile: This Post is Really, Like, Super Important

  1. I do agree with your situation. People always call me a “nitpicker” or “pedantic” when I am just trying to reduce semantic redundancies.
    I use slang quite a lot, [somewhat too often in my opinion {it is a tenacious habit}] and use grammar that is quite terrible in speech; and do agree that it does help to individualise yet uniformise a society. It is a powerful part of speech, and many people either overuse it or refuse to use it on principle.
    AWESOME POST!

    • Thanks for the comment Thomas! I think correcting people’s grammar is a rather tricky endeavor. As for me: I just live and let live. It is exhausting, both morally and physically, taking it upon oneself to police the grammar of the world. But, it does reveal some interesting details about a culture.

  2. In some languages, such as Chinese, the use of figurative language is an art and the better you are at spinning metaphors and similes to make a point by going in circles, the more you are admired by your friends and peers. In America, the opposite may be true.

    • Which is why translating Chinese into a Western language is such a pain (speaking from experience)… :-)

    • The same is true of Japanese, especially if you go back a century or three when figurative language rested at the height of courtly communication. Sadly, much of the poetry of the language is lost in translation, even if the merit of the metaphors remain.

    • Part of the reason they can hardly translate the Tao Te Ching is exactly because of that! :-D So much of expressing oneself fluently was dependant on referencing literary works that are now lost. It was like that episode of Star Trek Next Generation, “Darmok”, where the universal translators were of little use because much of the linguistic meaning was in the allusion.

    • Thanks bloggeretterized! Awesome name, btw. I am so much more interested in the theory and application behind slang than correcting it or the person. I think grammar classes, e.g. teachers, are only interested in the latter… :-)

      • Love the use of btw. Rather like usw in German – ‘und so weiter’. I’m a native German speaker and have taught English, French, and German. As such I feel I know absolutely everything! In my arrogace I am quite troubled by the like usage. I’m also tempted to correct the usage of I for me and a host of other criminal offences. Then I try, with all my might, to remember that the strength of English is its flexibility and that usage determines what is standard. Let the Germans and the French make rules for grammar and spelling. English is versatile, thriving, and seems to be surviving. I have to remind myself that I will only edit the speech and writing of someone who pays me ad grind my teeth quietly when I hear: “He sold the house to my brother and I.” Ouch. It hurts just to write that. Language is indeed powerful. I could go on forever. Thank you for getting me started und viel Spas mit dem Deutsch lernen. Barbara

      • I left several errors in my reply, on purpose. Hardly. I’m working on an iPad and things happen. But, I’m having so much fun.
        Barbara

      • Brilliant: “Let the Germans and the French make rules for grammar and spelling”! Also brilliant: “I will only edit the speech and writing of someone who pays me”! Haha! :-D

        ‘and so further’? Hmmm… I am going to begin a Deutsch class in February at my local German-American Institute. I am very excited to learn it in a social environment, versus by myself in the car. I think one can only go so far by learning language alone. My confidence is nonexistent when around German speakers. I get a few one-liners in from time to time, but that’s my extent and it requires a lot of effort!
        Thanks for the comment Barbara! And good luck with the iPad. I have had my eye on one for some time now.

        As a native German, I have a question for you Barbara. Did you ever notice that new words (Internet, handy, etc.) are given a nuder article. Why is that? Is there a specific peoples who determine German articles?

      • Not true of ALL teachers, however, and I would argue that there’s a place for grammar instruction, ESPECIALLY among students whose linguistic heritages wouldn’t otherwise grant them access to the language of power. Let’s not pretend it doesn’t exist and that some of the very people commenting on this blog wouldn’t be the first to look down on them as inferior for using, say, the subjective case where the objective case was required. I try to teach my kids to code-switch–to have fun with language (in fact, I think some of the likes and supercools are sort of charming), but know when and how to lock in on the power source when the judges, however superficial, are present.

      • I must apologize mothlit, but I’m having trouble following your argument. No where do I write ALL teachers. I am speaking for me and only me, I do apologize if that absolutism occurred, but I am unable to find it either in my post or a reply. (OMG! I found it! Ok, it’s right before that snarky little smiley emoticon that is supposed to indicate a joke, and therefore eradicate all attempts to take what I just wrote seriously. Maybe I should make that clearer next time…? :-))
        Also, heck yes there’s a place for grammar instruction!! Couldn’t agree more! In fact, I don’t think I disagreed or made that argument. (Also, I should let everyone here know: exclamation points mean happy excitement, not anger).
        And, again, we agree on your last point: I love slang!! Charming, endearing; yeap, I agree. Nowhere in this post, nor in my replies, do I state otherwise.
        Finally, I really wish you’d take another look at my post. As I’ve replied to SO many before you: use slang all u want! I love it! Use correct grammar too! That’s great! My post is about the theoretical observation that the word “like” betrays a postmoden distancing of experience. That’s it. All the rest leading up to that point was pure fun!
        I’m really glad you stopped by. Thanks for the comment!

      • I actually loved your post, btw. I was just sensing a little down-with-grammar theme in the comments, as well as a little elitism, ironically. Maybe I’m a little sensitive and, clearly, I got it wrong.

      • Mothlit, I apologize for my harsh response. No harm intended. I was responding to your use of all caps and your use of the word “power,” specifically. Well, I’ll just stop there and respond with this: if it looks as though many of the comments are not in favor of strict grammar, then that is my fault. I received 2-3 comments on grammar as equated to logic, and extolling the significance of attention to strict grammar. I did not approve those comments because along with their remarks on grammar (which I do not at all mind) these persons were making rude, belittling comments (which I do mind).
        I’m glad you liked the post. As with all my posts, it was written with a smile and a bit of fun intended.

      • And my bad on the ALL thing… I thought I was being cute emphasizing the hyperbole of my comment. I should know better than to attempt “cute…” It’s really not my style and I generally miss :) Thanks so much for your note.

  3. I wish I could improve my writing, without taking an english course, and this blog helped with that a little bit!

    I have written a little over 200,000 words spread across 80 posts but I know there are lots of grammatical errors. I keep saying someday I will get someone to edit them because I cannot write as well as you.

    • Well, fromrigstoriches, this post was not an attempt to make others feel bad about their writing. As many commentators have pointed out, my grammar is atrocious! The best advice I could give anyone to improve their writing would be to read. Read others’ writing, and then write, write, and write. And swat the little buzzing noise away that tells you that you wrote that incorrectly, or that the period/semi-colon is out of place. Kerouac wrote “On The Road” on one long piece of paper in one night (yes, on Benzedrine for you ad hominem attackers). Do you think he gave a crap about grammar? No. But his editors did, only no one remembers their names.
      Also, your blog looks fascinating. I have no idea what is going on, but I am intrigued.

      • I have no idea either!! That’s the best part.

        A long time ago, like 5 years ago, I wrote a long list of goals, none of which worked out, but I wrote down “Start a book called from rigs to riches.

        I all but forgot when I got the idea for the name, and how it came to me, but I FOUND the journal with that list about half way in.

        It kind of started as a way for me to sort out my thoughts, through this rough patch I am in, and I have just been saying what’s on my mind. Most of which has been confessions and secrets, even lies, that I wanted to get off my chest from the last 7 years.

        I have no idea where the “end” is, and I don’t think anyone could really give it a name or genre to quickly give an elevator pitch explanation.

        What start as a journal has become a love of writing, and I guess it only makes sense because I DO love to read a lot.

        haha… it seems you come to the defence of writers on the use of Benzedrine. I have never tried it, however I do recall the gist of it from a book I read called “on writing well” by William Zinsser. He also had similar advice about not worrying too much, so your understanding of the process is on par with the greats!

        Thanks for at least taking a look at mine, by the way.

      • Haha! I def don’t advocate Benzedrine, but writers are writers–never tried it either. It’s def about not worrying so much, and just getting the idea down–on paper, napkin, iPhone, whatever.

        The journal idea is very cool. You’re lucky, I can barely read the scribblings of my journals!

  4. Having two American teenagers and one English to the core husband, I am repeatedly reminded of the old quote, ” … two countries divided by a common language.” I feel your pain. My husband — more intensely so.

    • My 6-year old is only starting to adapt colloquialisms. I love it! I just laugh! I’m quite happy she is so observant as to pick up on the silly phrases and such. She says “really” all the time for emphasis. It cracks me up! But the thing is: I know 6-year olds and 30-year old PhD students who use the word “really” & “literally” unnecessarily. So, you know, all you can do is sit back and enjoy the ride. :-)

  5. I read somewhere that one could always tell which the German delegate was in a conference where everyone was listening via headphones to a translator in their own language.

    One could always tell because the German delegate laughed last because the translator had to wait to the end of the sentence to hear the verb.

    I don’t know whether the story is true, contains a grain of truth, or is just a good story. But it sounds like it ought to be true. ;-)

    • Haha! That’s fantastic David! I, for one, think it’s a great anecdote. And I will relate it to the Germans–well, the handful I know… :-)

      Also, your gravatar is the quintessential reading-the-internet pose! :-D Very nice!

  6. A grammar nerd you are not. We cleared that up with the confused modifying phrase in your first sentence: “As an English major and an adjunct professor of English/Humanities, many people make some pretty classic assumptions about me…” However, I, like, forgive you. Really.

    • Thank you SOOO much 1st Mate! You are spot on. I am not a grammar nerd, nor do I advocate severe punitive measures against those violating the rules of grammar. The best part is: never did I make that claim. :-)

      My point of this post is that slang, especially the word like, is indicative of a postmodern distancing of experience. That’s it. Use like alllll you want. I don’t care. Really. I don’t. :-D

  7. It reminds me of when I was a young student at UCLA and I anwered a question to the slide being presented. When the professor asked, “Who is this artist?”
    I responded, “It’s like Van Gogh.”
    “It’s not LIKE Van Gogh, it is Van Gogh,” he said.
    I stopped using “like” so freely. In the 90’s it was a common part of the California dialect.

    Great Blog
    Sierra

  8. And thus, an initiation to justify inquistion of a long and deserved witch hunt for adjectives and adverbs was given viral birth. As though, like seriously, anyone expects an inquistion of the English Grammar. Thank you and well done on your “Freshly Pressed” post.

    I would be curious, Do you have any backlog posts commenting upon the drawl of the US Southeastern Regional Dialect.

    [extract from your reply to Little Lauren] “I abbreviate in texts. It took me months to grow accustomed to it. Now I feel silly when I just realized that tomorrow can be abbreviated to tmrw. That’s genius!”

    My condolences and no you shouldn’t. Sorry, not meaning to be such a killjoy, but different stroke for this folk here. Am not necessarily fond of how abbreviation is getting overused (whether in visual or audio text. Oh and don’t even mention anything to do with such bastardizing of contraction in the dreadful production of any powerpoint presentation) and meandering prevalently in present societal evolution.

    PS: Just as Nächstes with an umlaut isn’t a city in Mississippi, you have me now desiring to brush up on my Deutsch. If I wait long enough, the urge should pass entirely. lol

    Anyway, just saying and passing through. Once more, congrats on a stellar post. I sure enjoyed it and got something from it.

    • Thanks for stopping by, thebluespade! That was quite a comment. Boy, um, I’ll do my best to reply. This is definitely NOT a witch hunt. As in my other comments expanding on my post: my post does not advocate the eradication of slang. Actually, it advocates the use of slang in appropriate social situations.

      As I responded to 1st Mate: “My point of this post is that slang, especially the word like, is indicative of a postmodern distancing of experience. That’s it. Use like alllll you want. I don’t care. Really. I don’t.”

      Also, I think you are being tongue-in-cheek, but I am horrible at detecting internet sarcasm.

      So, in seriousness, I think I was humming this while writing my post:
      “Come mothers and fathers
      Throughout the land
      And don’t criticize
      What you can’t understand
      Your sons and your daughters
      Are beyond your command
      Your old road is
      Rapidly agin’
      Please get out of the new one
      If you can’t lend your hand
      For the times they are a-changin’.”

      So true. For real-zies.

  9. Are you a genius sharing your headache? Seriously, I enjoyed the read and appreciate your different perspective, or just thinking for yourself, whatever…. just saying, Claudia

  10. Ja, no, well, fine.
    They say this in South Africa. I left SA over ten years ago but it’s what surfaced spontaneously after reading this post (which I enjoyed). Perhaps it’s because I also read that you do 8-hour Skype sessions. ‘Ja, no, well, fine’ means ‘We’re not sure what’s going on but we’re quite happy to run with it.’ Maybe a bit like your Deutsche freundin?
    But I never knew that when I heard or used it. You could say it whenever you felt like it for no reason at all. A really lekker expression. :) Slang is something you can actually miss a lot!

    • Thanks for the comment It’s only P!! :-)
      I think slang captures a moment of existence. It moves at such a rapid pace that you end up being outdated without even knowing it. I test out phrases on those in their early 20’s and they tell me that “only old people say that”. Sheesh… :-)

  11. Thank you! Your words are summer rain on a parched, antipodean landscape.
    I often use the terms ‘poetry police’ and ‘bloody grammar police’ because I feel some value form too much, as a result valuable content can be lost.
    I’m a poet who writes for people who don’t always ‘get’ poetry. I see my work as self expressive and hopefully resonant. I write about death, grief, ageing and living with chronic and life limiting illness, all subjects I know well. And although I’m not a conventional poet, I do sometimes ‘turn people on’ to the works of poets as diverse as Neruda and Billy Collins. I like to think of myself as a gateway poet.
    As a result of a hospital stay last year, my poetry came to the attention of a psychologist who specialises in working with the chronic and terminally ill. After years of rejection I’m now presenting workshops titled Expressive Writing in Chronic and Life Limiting Illness to psychologists and post grad students in the psycho oncology research unit of an Australian hospital. This is my ultimate dream fulfilled, but the ‘poetry police’ here don’t like my work and so my audience is limited. My frustration is not just an ego thing (little bit ego), it’s more I feel I have a specialised contribution to make. I want to encourage people to feel they are not alone, that it’s ok to be sad, that life doesn’t always have happy endings, and that writing, isn’t just about rules and regulations, it can be a valuable survival tool for life in the 21st century. Above all I feel if a poem speaks to you, it’s a good poem.
    Sorry for rabbiting on, but it is so refreshing to read the words of a language specialist with an open mind. One who doest feel the need to tut at those who don’t follow the rules.

    • You have an amazing story triciabertram. Poetry is such a personal expression, and putting your person out there takes guts. I was so hesitant to put my poetry on a blog, much more to any publisher–or read it out loud! to people! That’s so powerful to me. Good luck with your workshops. They sound incredible!

      And please, ramble away! :-)

  12. It’s indeed quite peculiar that we Germans wait with the verb until the last minute as if we needed more time to chew on some of them before deciding which one would fit best. It drives interpreters crazy because more often than not they simply have to guess in order to carry on with translating!
    Very good post, thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    Andrea

  13. I just read this ‘random’ post by accident and very much enjoyed it. You speak a lot of sense and have now given me reason to not disrespect the use of slang so much. Thank you.

  14. Thank you for, like, helping me to understand all of the, like, I mean, you know, way that my students speak without, like, saying a damn thing. Now I can, like, seriously understand them.

    Great post. Congratulations on the FP!

    • Wonderful! I hope none of your students speak that poorly. :-)
      I think a good rejoinder to the “like” thing is what Sierra Michaels posted above:

      “It reminds me of when I was a young student at UCLA and I anwered a question to the slide being presented. When the professor asked, “Who is this artist?”
      I responded, “It’s like Van Gogh.”
      “It’s not LIKE Van Gogh, it is Van Gogh,” he said.”

      Although you may not make to many friends with your students with this response. :-)

  15. Excellent writing! After reading your post, I feel hyper-aware of word usage and am interested in the overlap/seperation of feeling and being present. Thank you!!

    • So do I!!! Every time my gf says “literally” a red flag goes off in my head! And I catch myself using like and thinking, “Isn’t there a better way to say that?” I guess it’s working… :-)

  16. I freaking love your simulation/simile/slang reference to Baudrillard. I crush on him so hard. Great post! I worked in a writing lab for four years, and it’s so hard to get students to understand that slang is fine for verbal communication, but can cause confusion in writing. On another note, I find it a little sad that we have had to incorporate language that functions specifically to differentiate between a simulation and actually doing something.

    • Thanks for the comment aldabaran88! You are the first commenter to mention Baudrillard! Yeah! I wish I had some sort of prize, but, sadly, I don’t. I was hoping someone would get the Gulf War reference, since he has a text entitled “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place”. Who cares if he’s right or wrong, that’s pretty gutsy and amazing.

      I understand that sadness, but it’s such a brilliant piece of the postmodern condition. I went to a seminar on Pop Culture a few years back, and in order for the speaker to differentiate between Reality (the stuff happening here, now) and reality TV, which she was presenting on, she would gesture up for capital “R” and point down for lowercase “r”. It was quite amusing, but what was more interesting is that we didn’t have another word for reality TV, besides reality. If anything, we lack vocabulary to define this distancing. Perhaps that’s why words like “like” are overused? Hmmm… that was a thought I did not expect to accomplish. :-D

      Many thanks!!

      • I enjoyed your initial post very much. I’m now finding the ensuing dialogue interesting, informative and entertaining. For reasons I don’t understand my teeth clench when I read the oft used Facebook expression “totes adorbs” sometimes this is abbreviated to “totes” (I think that’s how they type it). In my experience it’s used by women in their 30s and 40s, I’m 62.
        On another topic I enjoy your poetry and hope to read more of it in the future.
        So pleased the wordpress people brought your blog to my attention.
        Tricia

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