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Why We Shouldn't Hate the Word "Like"

Think "like" is an offense on the English language introduced by Valley Girls in the 1980s? Think again.

Think "like" is an offense on the English language introduced by Valley Girls in the 1980s? Think again.

Language gripes have the staying power of cockroaches and Betty White. Complaints about “their” being used as a singular pronoun are rarely quelled by the fact that it’s been used that way since the 1300s. The seemingly harmless “no problem” continues to annoy people who feel “you’re welcome” is the only acceptable response to “thank you.” (Myself, I favor, “That’s what your mom said.") Let’s not even get into the complaints about “whom”—a word as dead as disco that just won't go away.

Then there’s “like,” especially the type I just overheard on the street: “I’m just, like, so excited because I’m, like, so passionate about it.” That’s the version people think is almost always used by women and teens and makes anyone sound foolish. Recently, the wonderful Emma Thompson came out as a like-hater. I can’t say I like “like” much myself, but this word is surrounded by more illusions than a magician’s convention, and they should be dispelled.

First, let’s take the mostly non-controversial meanings. No one I know has a problem with “like” as a comparative word, but I guess that’s because I missed the fifties by two decades. As Christopher Hitchens wrote in an excellent essay: Winstons' “tastes good, like a cigarette should” slogan was loathed by fans of “as,” to which the company’s next ad responded, “What do you want, good grammar, or good taste?” In reality, “like” with this sense is extremely established; it’s been around since the 1600s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. As usual, the language peevers were wrong about the wrongs they tried to right.

“Like” in the sense of “liking” is similarly non-offensive, at least until the takeover of Facebook's ubiquitous “like” feature. This use of “like” reduces the term to an effortless, meaningless gesture, much like the “favorite” feature on Twitter. As Victor Pineiro writes, “'Like' is a vast expanse, covering things I feel lukewarm about, things I'm fond of and objects toward which I exhibit a smoldering passion. But give me a sunny day and some good music and there are few things I don't like—which makes the button a notoriously easy impulse click.” Not a lot to like there.

Facebook is also home to some old-fashioned peeving, as seen in the groups “Abolish inappropriate use of the word LIKE in the English Language” and “Excessive misuse of the word 'LIKE': A Manifesto.” The latter refers to “like” as a “common scourge” that acts as a parasite on its “unaware hosts.” This sense of “like” as a disease can also be found in the writing of far more informed sources, such as etymologist Anatoly Liberman, who calls it a “plague.”

Despite these exaggerated, medicalized descriptions, there is nothing particularly flu-ish or vermin-like about “like”—all of its uses obey rules and have meaning. One sense functions like “said,” as in “He was like, ‘Whoa.’” Another is what linguists call a discourse marker; words such as “like” and “you know” and “um” separate words and phrases in a way that sounds will-nilly but is governed by rules. It seems like you can stick “like” anywhere in a sentence, but you can’t and people don’t. In speech, discourse markers help us communicate. There’s nothing remotely new about this; the OED has an example from 1778: “Father grew quite uneasy, like, for fear of his Lordship's taking offence.”

A few years ago, Alexandra D’arcy wrote a comprehensive look at disliked “like” in the linguistics journal American Speech called “Like and Language Ideology: Disentangling Fact from Fiction.” One of the fictions is that “like” is an Americanism inflicted on us by the Valley Girls of the eighties. That’s incorrect, as it is older (see the previous paragraph) and can be found among English-speakers all over the world. In fact, the existence of elderly “like” users in the U.K. and New Zealand disproves the American-ness of like as well as the supposed youth-iness. In another blow to stereotypes, women don’t use “like” more often than men. “Like” really is more common among teens than other groups, but all age groups from teens to geezers use it. Everyone uses “like.” Maybe that’s why everyone seems to hate it.

At this point, I wish I could say “Put that information in your pipe, smoke it, and take it easy on ‘like’ from now on.” But all the citations and study in the world can’t dispute the reality that saying “like” too much makes people sound like morons. And while I’d love to throw it off the roof of a high building, I can't. It’s far too ingrained in our speech, with too many meanings and uses. We’re, like, stuck with it.

Source photo for illustration by Alan Fairweather.


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