Many parents and teachers have become irritated to the point of distraction at the way the weed-style growth of "like" has spread through the idiom of the young. And it's true that in some cases the term has become simultaneously a crutch and a tic, driving out the rest of the vocabulary as candy expels vegetables.
Candy expelling vegetables is sort of a funny mental image, but the rest of this is worth another word that has spread through the idiom of the young (where "young" means anyone under about forty-five): duh. Hitchens quotes some linguists on the use of "like" in reported speech, ("One of the innovative developments in the white English of Californians is the use of the discourse-marker ‘I'm like' or ‘she's like' to introduce quoted speech, as in ‘I'm like, where have you been?'"), and notes its connection to "uptalk" ("I go to Columbia University?") but really the only surprising thing about his piece is how the word has trickled up from the mallrats of the 70s and 80s to the sages of the literary establishment. To whit:
Ian McEwan rather surprised me when I asked him about "like," telling me that "it can be used as a pause or a colon: very handy for spinning out a mere anecdote into a playlet that's full of parody and speculation." And also of hyperbole, as in "She's been out with, like, a million guys."
I can't help but be amused at Hitchens and McEwan chortling over the dialect I grew up speaking (Clueless was shot partially at my local mall), but what's kind of tone-deaf about Hitchens's "like"-hate is how widespread that dialect has become. Largely because of the movie industry (I'd also be interested to hear an analysis of the word "like" in porn), everybody knows Valley-girl-speak. That's why comments about Gabourey Sidibe talking "like a white girl from the Valley" weren't just, as Latoya wrote, "flattening," they were also silly: "like" isn't just for white girls anymore, and in an age of ubiquitous mass media, no dialect is wholly regional or racial. There's a conversation to be had about whether certain privileged dialects are crowding out others, and about whether a time when every place had a unique argot was in some ways a richer time. But that's far beyond the scope of Hitchens's piece.