Like air and digital streams of summer vacation photos, the word “like” is ubiquitous. Used to introduce ideas and quotes, to fill space and to roll out observations, those four letters are entwined in our speech so thoroughly that “like” appears hundreds of times in just one episode of the reality TV show “Love Island.”
But when did “like” insinuate itself into our language? After all, it may be a useful word, one that wears many hats — noun, verb and adverb, among others — but it doesn’t always enhance clarity. In fact, “like” sometimes clouds our conversations.
When we use “like” to introduce a quote rather than “wrote” or “said” or “thought,” as Americans born in and after the 1980s tend to do, we introduce ambiguity. That vagueness allows elision that collapses written and spoken speech with inner monologue. The ambiguous “like” foregrounds thought and plays with tense, creating stream-of-consciousness storytelling that is both literary and postmodern.
That insight dates back to Malcom Gladwell’s 1992 Washington Post article on this same subject, which he began by eavesdropping on two teenagers — “both probably named Jennifer,” he writes — shopping in a mall. The dismissive tone of his observations is repeated in myriad media accounts of the popularity of “like.” Frequent usage of the word is often ascribed to young people — particularly young women — but research shows “like” isn’t a new phenomenon.
Scholar Alexandra D’Arcy’s definitive book on the word, “Discourse-Pragmatic Variation in Context: 800 Years of Like,” contains a transcript of 1784 trial proceedings that recorded a man using “like” as a marker: “there were different bruises, like as if it was the knuckles of a hand.” The word “acts as a road map,” D’Arcy notes, to the sentence that follows.
The word has other functions, too. Delivered with the tonal shifts that accompany conversation, “like” can soften a request or indicate the limits of one’s knowledge. Like it’s a hedge, which can undermine the speaker’s authority. When deploying “like” this way, D’Arcy said in an interview, a speaker is actually “trying to be cooperative” by deferring to the listener.
Though the word’s traditional uses began in Old English, media emphasis on “like” as a cultural signifier of youth took off due to Frank and Moon Zappa’s 1982 song “Valley Girl,” whose refrain — “Like, oh my God!” — echoed through our domestic landscape.
At the time and decades later, media accounts perpetuated the notion that “like” sprang fully formed from the head of a Valley Girl, an archetype further popularized by the 1983 movie of that title, whose protagonist was known more for the clothes she wore than the stalking she experienced. (Her would-be suitor sneaks back into a home he’s been ejected from, failing to announce himself to the partygoers who cycle through the bathroom where, silent in the shower, he waited for her to appear.)
Seen through the lens of this supposed Valley Girl origin story, frequent use of “like” became further evidence that modern culture had frayed, strained by the excesses of late capitalism in America, as satirized by the many shopping references in the Zappa song, the Gladwell article and other popular representations.
Studies show that people deem speakers who say “like” as both less intelligent and younger than those who don’t, though D’Arcy cited linguistic analyses of modern octogenarians using “like” in the same way that adolescents do, if not as frequently. (Teenagers judged for using the same words as elders. Figures.) Her research also reveals the word’s extensive literary and oral history.
“Like” appeared as a filler in Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novel “Kidnapped,” and it was bandied about by beat writers such as Jack Kerouac, who refused to be “all hung-up on like literary inhibitions” in “On the Road.” “Like” is neither confined to English — Francophones use comme; Norwegians, liksom; Finns, niinku; for speakers of Hebrew, both ke’ilu and kaze play the role — nor is it uniquely American. The New Zealand Broadcasting Service recorded “like” as a marker in the speech of people born in that country as early as 1851.
The satirized “Valley Girl” trope did lead to more widespread usage of “like” in American speech and culture, memorialized in the 1995 film “Clueless,” whose director studied the slang of Beverly Hills students. The 16-year-old female protagonist’s vernacular and clothes drew more attention than the fact that her college-age ex-stepbrother pursued sexual contact with her.
Women and girls are believed to use “like” more frequently, though overall, they don’t, said D’Arcy, who conducted a detailed analysis of urban North American speech. She did find that young women use “like” to mean “said,” “wrote” or “thought” more frequently than men, who tend to use “like” to fill space between thoughts.
“We have a tendency to be really hard on women, to denigrate women, for being linguistic leaders, when in fact, if we simply listen to young women, they are laying out a road map for where language is going anyway,” D’Arcy said.
So what does it signify when young women are ridiculed for using a word already in common currency? Who benefits from designating a woman’s speech as a degradation of language?
In legal contexts, “those who speak in a powerless style, which is marked by deference and imprecision, are less likely to be believed,” according to the book “Just Words: Law, Language and Power,” written by professors John Conley, William O’Barr and Robin Riner. That reality, the authors argue, “is a manifestation of the law’s patriarchy at the most elemental linguistic level.”
Dismissing women’s speech makes it easier to dismiss their experiences — and to doubt them when they’re wronged.
To associate “like” mostly with young women, rather than recognizing the word’s widespread usage across cultures, continents and centuries, is to undermine their intelligence and observations and to place them at a disadvantage.
“The way people speak is translated directly into the way they are perceived, but we are not acting on the words, we are acting on the social meaning of those words,” D’Arcy said. “Women need to use language to get certain rights and privileges that are inherently handed to men. We tend to denigrate women for the way they talk,” yet their speech isn’t so different from that of their male peers.
Kristen Millares Young is the author of “Subduction,” a novel forthcoming from Red Hen Press on April 14, 2020.