#1323: “People keep using a filler-word that bugs me and I want to not care.”

Dear Captain Awkward,

There is a word people use all the time as filler in their speech. I first noticed it about 8 years ago and thought it was a quirk of my local progressive scene. (This is similar to someone hating “like” although I think my word is less common than that.) It has metastasized and is now popping up all over. I want to listen to podcasts where smart people talk about policy and cultural issues but sometimes I just shut them off because the word is driving me up the wall. I feel like I’m not old enough to hate a word used by young people but unfortunately I do.

I don’t want to miss out on people’s wisdom (delivered for free via podcast or radio) over a silly word! Do you have any ideas for not caring about this anymore?Thank you so much! I hope the Awkward household is all having a wonderful time settling in to the new spot.

Hello! Thank you for this packing procrastination diversion. In return for publishing this question, I request that you email me back and tell me what the word is. I will keep your secret, if you insist, but I must know.

The good news is that you recognize that this is a you-problem.

Language changes all the time. We are taught grammar, spelling, and usage rules as children as if they are timeless, static, and prescriptive, but really they are descriptive snapshots of a given time, place, and what agreements have been negotiated among various authorities, heavily influenced by class, race, gender, power, and other social striations. There are the rules, and then there are how people actually communicate, and the second will always reshape the first eventually, as teen girls, AAVE speakers, queer people, and other innovative social and linguistic out-groups are ridiculed by the relatively established, old, male, and white, and then see their language appropriated and mainstreamed by those same people. Sometimes the mainstreaming is a necessary reclamation of meaning that heralds greater inclusion and understanding, and sometimes it’s erasure, like “woke” and “cancel culture” dogwhistling hatefully out of rancid pundits, or the mortifying spectacle of a white woman “dancing” to choreography lifted without credit from Black TikTok creators on late night TV.

People love to decry “filler” words and phrases such as “Um,” “Like”, and “You know,” saying that they make the speaker sound unserious and tentative, that such words are unnecessary, and that they detract from the communicator’s authority. As much as I’d like to stab Henry Higgins in the neck with a hatpin, I can’t argue that “proper” speech has no correlation to a person’s perceived professional status and upward mobility and nobody should ever learn it, but it still fascinates me in terms of how people continue to perceive authority: who is assumed to have it, who has to earn it, and whose can be discounted if their thoughts don’t emerge from the mouth in complete, declarative sentences. Why is “authoritative” a thing people are supposed to emulate in the first place? People say all kinds of bullshit with an air of authority, after all. If “filler words” truly served no purpose, if they communicated nothing, nobody would say them. Since so many people say them, they must mean something, and I’m not sure that “um, why are you, like, so unsmart and incapable?” is the correct default assumption about that.

All that to say, I don’t know what your word-nemesis is, but it’s obviously here to stay, and fortunately you have recognized the futility of trying to control its spread. (“Kids these days! Can you believe it?” – Every generation of grownups since the beginning of recorded time.)

The bad news is, I don’t know how to tell your brain to stop tripping on the word. But since you asked, I’d like to offer an experiment:

  • Make yourself a “That-Word-Jar” like a swear jar. It can be physical, or it can be digital, since many online banking platforms will let you create sub-accounts within your main one.
  • Every time you hear the word and flinch or wince or mentally recoil or judge the person using it, put a quarter in the jar (physical) or record that it happened and transfer the funds later (digital).
  • When the jar is full (physical) or hits a certain dollar amount (digital), donate 80% of the money to a worthy cause and use the other 20% to buy yourself a little treat.
  • Repeat until you achieve some measure of peace with the word or get sick of doing the experiment.

I do not know if you will ever stop noticing or hating the word, but at least this way your suffering will have a purpose and do somebody some good.

I am closing comments because I do actually have to do more packing and 10,000 iterations of guessing what the word is or sharing personally annoying words is not a thing I’m going to moderate, but if any linguists want to send me links to papers about the perception, prevalence, and varied meanings of so-called “filler words,” I will read them for pleasure next week as I am able. Have a good weekend.