I’ve got a problem with the word “like”. I don’t like that “like” has replaced the word “said” in spoken English. People don’t say “I said” or “He says” much any more. Instead they say “She was like” and “I’m like”. As for me, I’m like: I don’t like it. But whether I like it or not, I have to accept that this is how most people like to talk these days.
The youth like to use the Quotative Like. That’s the linguistic term for when you say “I’m like” instead of “I said”. This colloquial way to introduce a direct quotation in speech came into widespread use well before the turn of the century. Its usage continues to grow as more and more babies are born who will never learn the verb “to say”.
It’s not only teens and 20-somethings who have replaced “I said” with “I’m like”. Michelle Obama, who is 53 years old, responded to a question in a Tonight Show interview with the Quotative Like. There was no pushback (another word I hear a lot these days, used to describe negative feedback). It was like the New Normal for the US First Lady to use “like” this way:
“He’s like, ‘I’m going to take you, and we’re going to go out on a romantic dinner.’ And I’m like, ‘Is the ambulance coming?’”
– Michelle Obama describing daily life for her and hubby Barack under 24/7 Secret Service protection
Of course, spoken language is constantly evolving and that’s great for etymological enrichment and renewal. But (if I may dip into the YouthSpeak phrase book) here’s the thing. As we get older we need guidance on whether and how to embrace such adaptations in our own spoken language.
“I’m so gonna unlike that selfie of her twerking. Srsly though, these words make me wanna vom… As a member of the younger generation, partly responsible for these linguistic calamities, I can only apologise. I am embarrassed and ashamed. It doesn’t exactly reflect well on young people that the new additions are mostly related to image, reputation and sex. Instead of creating words to improve our ability to communicate and express ourselves, these words simply promulgate an unhealthy culture obsessed with being seen in the right places and knowing who’s doing what.”
– Isabelle Kerrm Bristol University student, The Telegraph
bashful,bushed,ballyhoo,bejesus,blither,britches,brisk,bushel,botched,by jove,by George,beckon,
cotton-pickin’,clicker,crotchety,cloud 9,condone,cup of joe,coon,chit-chat,cantankerous,chap,codswallop,coventry,courting,canoodle,capiche,crudbucket,
davenport,dilly-dally,diddly-squat,(the) dickens,dagnabbit,dog and pony show,druthers,dandy/jim-dandy,daybreak,daybed,dowery,darling,daggumit,dawdle,darn/darn-tootin,
fuddy-duddy,fanny,fiddle-sticks,full of bologna,fib,fella,famished,flabbergasted,folks,fopdoodle,
gung ho,gibberish,geez,geez-louise,golly,gosh,gosh-darnit,gee-whiz,goodness,gumption,got me in stitches,gollywobbler,gollosh,gams
haberdashery,hot-dang,hock,hasty,hankerin’,hog wash,hooligan,hoodlum,hanky-panky,hit the hay/sack,hussy,horse-puckey,heavens to betsy,hither,hunch,
lallygag,lickity split,life of riley,laurels,lily livered,limerick,loathe,
mosey,meloncholy,muck/muckle,market (grocery store),moot point,mind your p’s and q’s,mayhaps,murgatroyd,meander,maw
plum-tuckered/tuckered,poppycock,pooped,posh or pish-posh,precious,picklepuss,push pin,peachy,pestering,
scadaddle,shenanigans,shindig,slacks,smitten,scot-free,shambles,shibboleth,stomping grounds,swell,shucks,spiffy,splendid,snickerdoodle,supper,silly goose,
stocking feet,sunday best,sabbath,scamper,stroll,scoot,spiffy,soiled,sam hill/sam hell,
tall drink of water,terrace,tookis,tarnish,tarnation,tummy,tawdry,two-bits,
As the above makes clear, young and old speak differently. Like with “like”. Which wording should be used by those Of A Certain Age: “I said” or “I’m Like”?What if you overheard me saying “So I’m like No way!” (Translation: Hence I said, “This is not possible!”) Would that be the aural equivalent of Mutton Dressed As Lamb? Would you cringe to hear a pathetic attempt at YouthSpeak from an aging cakehole? (In terms of the tone and timber of one’s aging voice, check out the anti-aging voice exercises recommended by My New Old Self to help you sound – if not look – younger.)
Hmmm… Where are we going with this? Is ageism creeping in here? Should separate lexicons be legislated for young and old? Does this linguistic age-based apartheid extend beyond the Quotative Like to the entire slang vocabulary? Like the youth can say “awesome” but geezers must say “groovy”?
Many people favour another (over)use of “like”. They like to use it as “a discourse particle, filler, hedge, or speech disfluency” (according to Wikipedia). In Plain English that means like, when you, like, just say like all the time. Like that.
Like when US wannabe-prez Donald Trump found it necessary to throw in a “like” when bragging about his intelligence:
“I went to the Wharton School of Business. I’m, like, a really smart person.”
You can see why the overuse of like can be unlikeable. (The above also shows how commas can affect meaning, when “like” is involved. Without them, Trump would simply have been trumpeting the fact that he resembled, but was not actually, a really smart person.)
“I abhor the whole ‘like’ thing and have since I was a kid. It slows down language, makes storytelling unbearable and, frankly, drops the speaker down a couple of IQ points in my eyes. The worst was a woman/girl in college whose every third word was ‘like’… ‘So, like, is this, like, going to be on, like, the test or, like, what?’ ARRRRGH!!”
“When I hear the word ‘like’ it absolutely set my teeth on edge. Sometimes I stop the conversation and I ask the other person (especially my kids), ‘Like what? Similar to? I don’t understand what you’re talking about. Can you please explain this word – like?’ Usually it gets them to stop for a little while.”
– online comments on the use of “like” as a filler word
Fillers like “like” are used in many languages. They’re just words you throw in from time to time when you’re thinking about what to say next. The French use the word “quoi” a lot. In Spanish they say “este” as a filler word. Zulu speakers pepper their speech with “nje”. Afrikaans speakers say “mos”.
Throwing in “like” – even several times in one sentence – sounds like contemporary English slang. Yet “like” was apparently used as a filler word in Wales and Scotland in the 19th century. And “like” was big in the 1950s, when the Beatniks were on the scene.
Beatniks: Jazz hippies in berets. Beatnik speak: “Like, wow, Daddio.”
– Urban Dictionary
Perhaps the most famous 20th century pop culture example of the excessive use of “like” was in the 1982 Frank Zappa song, Valley Girl. The lyrics were in California Girl Lingo.
Like, OH MY GOD! (Valley Girl)
Like – TOTALLY (Valley Girl)
Encino is like SO BITCHEN (Valley Girl)
There’s like the Galleria (Valley Girl)
And like all these like really great shoe stores
I love going into like clothing stores and stuff
I like buy the neatest mini-skirts and stufl
It’s like so BITCHEN cuz like everybody’s like
It’s like so BITCHEN…
– “Valley Girl” lyrics, released 1982
Like, how do I dislike you? Let me count the ways. Or to use YouthSpeak: What’s not to like about Like? There’s the Facebook Like Button, to cite yet another unlikeable use of Like. I can’t say I really like clicking the Thumbs Up sign.
A linguist who has studied the increasing use of the Quotative Like over decades is Professor Patricia Cukor-Avila of the University of North Texas. She has also researched the African American English permutation of the Quotative Like: “I be like”.
Does this linguistics professor see these new ways to use the word “like” as a threat to the English language? Not likely. Her line to linguists seems to be: Get used to it.
“I tell my students, eventually all the people who hate this kind of thing are going to be dead, and the ones who use it are going to be in control.”
– Linguist Patricia Cukor-Avila on the use of expressions like “I’m like”
The professor’s comment was immortalised in a comic strip on the XKCD website.
My New Old Self is like: “Me too.” I’m like, maybe using “like” more might just help me live longer.