An earlier column dealt with the near universal overuse of the word “like” which took root among the youth of America and has spread into a full fledged virus infecting people of all ages.

While irritating, high school and college students “liking” themselves into oblivion can be written off as a normal manifestation of adolescent rebellion. Kids in all generations adopt speech patterns, means of dress, taste in music, for the very reason that it drives the adult world crazy. When the Beatles authenticated long hair for men it was cool only, however, until every overweight middle-aged wannabe wore his hair down to his shoulders.

It seemed safe to confidently predict the same fate for “like speak” as housewives, talk show hosts, even newscasters began to start every sentence and separate every thought with the word like. Perhaps because I’m overly sensitive to this phenomenon, I’m a poor judge of where we are in the “like” lifecycle, but it appears, if anything, to be growing, not diminishing with ever broader misuse.

In addition, “no problem” is beginning to take on “like” like portions as an inappropriate substitute for any and all expressions of gratitude, compliance, or agreement. Thank a grocery clerk for bagging your groceries, “no problem.” Ask a valet to retrieve your car, “no problem.” Request a better seat from a ticket agent, “no problem.” Whatever happened to “you’re welcome,” “be delighted to find your seat,” “my pleasure, madam?”

While efficient, “no problem” is the most negative way of saying something positive. A waitress responding to the compliment regarding her service, “it was a great pleasure serving you” is vastly more satisfying then “no problem.” What would you think if your wife or lover concluded an intimate interlude with “no problem?” No problem in that case would represent only a slight cut above bad.

There was a time when you could expect managers of retail stores regularly frequented to say, “we really appreciate your business.” In the odd/rare occasion there is someone to thank for finding your purchase and taking your money, count on “no problem” as the near certain acknowledgement.

It makes one begin to speculate on what degree of difficulty a real problem might actually arise. If the President asks the Armed Forces to invade Iraq will our Generals and Admirals respond “no problem?” If the Supreme Court upholds the University of Michigan’s affirmative action policies, would John Ashcroft’s reply be “no problem.” If the fifty states refused to endorse a Constitutional amendment to ban abortion, will the Vatican and Jerry Falwell adopt a “no problem” acceptance of the majority opinion?

When a toilet overflows it is “no problem” for a plumber, it’s an opportunity. Imagine a world where internists accept cigars and martinis as “no problem.” Where wives accept the occasional dalliance as “no problem.” Where employers accept unexplained absence as “no problem.” Where the police accepts speeding as “no problem.” Where the IRS accepts late filing as “no problem.”

Perhaps by then there will be nothing that constitutes a problem for anyone at anytime for any reason – like Utopia – like paradise – like “no problem.”