Like, why do so many people
like saying "like"?

by Trevor Stokes, ts2279@columbia.edu
Columbia New Service
http://jscms.jrn.columbia.edu/cns/2006-04-04/stokes-likelikelike
4 April 2006

The word "like" has entered the lexicon of the famous and successful who can't seem to, like, stop themselves from using the discourse particle that once belonged exclusively to gum-cracking teenagers.

 

It turns out that famous public speakers have lately been developing linguistic habits once most commonly associated with gum-cracking teenagers.

 

Even, like, President Bush.

Discussing Social Security at a March 21 White House news conference, the leader of the free world used these words to describe a recent crisis: "The system," the president declared, "was about to, like, fall into the abyss." Later in the news conference, Bush gave his take on the current situation in Iraq: "There are other voices coming out of Iraq, by the way, other than Mr. Allawi -- who I know, by the way, like, he's a good fellow."

 

The president's inclination toward "like" demonstrated a recent reality -- that the use of "like" is no longer just the realm of inarticulate youth but also a common, even acceptable form of speech among intelligent adults.

 

This nonstandard use of the word "like" -- what linguists refer to as a discourse particle -- has extended from "Valley Girl" parlance to the White House, reporters and Hollywood stars, to name just a few recent users of the word. The word has recently been heard from the mouths of George Clooney, Oprah Winfrey, comedian Roseanne Barr and NPR talk-show host Terry Gross. Linguists say that "like," a little bit or particle of language that doesn't fit into the usual verb form, allows even the most assured public speaker to escape commitment from what's being said.

 

"It's a very good functional word that we need, which is exactly the reason that it's spreading to older people," said Muffy Siegel, an English professor at Temple University, who published a 2002 study focused on contemporary uses of the word.

 

However, Siegel admits the word still has a troubled history. "It does brand you as identifying with a culture that we stereotypically consider, uh, not to be full of intelligent people," Siegel said, "That doesn't mean it's because the word is dumb. It's not."

Some linguists see "like" as a bigger indicator of "teen-speak" bleeding over into adulthood. Corporate speech therapist Karen Long said people in their 20s and 30s whose speech she imitated as, "Like and um man like uh well like uh," can have significant employment challenges.

 

The term made its first real splash in the 1983 movie "Valley Girl," a portrait of California teen subculture. In the movie's opening, the popular Julie breaks up with her preppy boyfriend Tommy by saying, "It's like, I'm totally not in love with you anymore, Tommy." He responds with, "Not too cool, Julie. Like, I won't be totally bummed out."

 

Robert Underhill, a "like"-minded linguist at San Diego State University, called the word "a flag to indicate that new information is coming." Or so he concluded in a 1988 study of the word. "People who were youths 20 years ago are quite a bit older now. The use has sort of spread up the generation scale," the academic said. "I don't use it myself, unless I'm trying to be funny."

 

But most who use it may not even realize that they are. Last October, during an interview on ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel Live," Roseanne Barr, 53, claimed she could win a "mind contest" over Bush. Barr described it this way: "Like if it was like a psychic thing and he was like, OK Roseanne, bring your best powers against my best powers, even though he's like totally worldwide connected, and I'm not so worldwide, I could so totally still win on account of like being female, being a grandmother and like, you know, being intelligent."

 

Even highly literate talk show hosts sometimes fall prey to the particle. In a recent interview with actor Aaron Eckhart, NPR's Terry Gross offered this comment: "Now the first two films I mentioned ("In the Company of Men" and "Your Friends and Neighbors") are two of the most, like, misogynistic films, and I should say misanthropic films."

 

During a recent episode of "Oprah," comedian Jon Stewart reminisced about old Westerns. "I just remember Tom Mix with, like, giant makeup riding on a horse," he said. Later in the same episode, Academy Award winner George Clooney joked about how Nicole Kidman brought him good luck. "I asked her to, like, help out," the star said.

 

On occasion, Winfrey herself has even used the particle. During one March show, Oprah asked supermodel Liya Kebede: "Were you, like, discovered?"

 

Other professionals occasionally lapse into "like" usage on television. When MSNBC host Chris Mathews recently reminisced about President Eisenhower's bounce back in approval ratings, he remarked: "I'm old enough to remember that Ike had a very bad couple of years in '57, '58 and then he came back and he left office with, like, 65, some amazing popularity."

 

Discourse particles such as "like" -- and other favorites, including "well" and "y'know" -- have become the focus of intense study. This April one academic publisher, Elsevier, plans to release a 500-page book called "Approaches to Discourse Particles" with contributions from about 20 linguists.

 

But no academic treatise is likely to curb Bush's seeming enthusiasm for the term. Last December, during an interview on NBC, the president responded to previous statements that he preferred his aides to inform him of the news, rather than to read the paper himself. "I mean, I read the newspaper," Bush responded, "I mean, I can tell you what the headlines are. I must confess, if I think the story is, like, not a fair appraisal, I'll move on."