A word that, like, invaded speech

by Jessie O’Brien

Of all the verbal tics, there is one that is, like, really annoying. The word “like” has crept into the middle of many sentences as a filler word, used in lieu of non-word fillers like “um” or “uh.” It’s being used instead of “said,” like when FDR said to his buddies, “And I was like, ‘The only thing to fear is fear itself.’” Once you start hearing it, it’s difficult to focus on anything else.

But using “like” isn’t new. Jennifer Gehrman is a professor of History of English Language and Linguistics at Fort Lewis College. She said the word has been around since the beginning of the English language, as a preposition and conjunction to express similarity and other meanings.

“Surprisingly, people started using it as a filler word in the 1700s,” Gehrman said. Except someone from that time would use it at the end of a sentence such as, “Give me liberty or give me death, like!”

Gehrman said using “like” in the middle of the sentance emerged in the 1950s, and caught on with the counterculture beatniks of the ’60s. It was later adopted as Valley Girl-speak (i.e., like, gag me with a spoon). Other words similar to like are “right” or “OK” (or as Mr. Mackey would say, “Drugs are bad, mm’kay”).

Gehrman said uncontrolled “likes” are more prevalent in younger peoples’ speech patterns.“It is a marker of insecurity because you are (uncomfortable) to leave dead air or dead space,” she said.

We catch on to other people’s behavior and mimic them. Gehrman said this is how language functions and dialects develop. She doesn’t know for sure if “like” is becoming more prevalent – there hasn’t been any research on it – but one of two things will happen: It will die out or become acceptable. Gehrman predicts the former.

“It is not that notable in writing. That’s what keeps language stable, because we are such a literate culture,” she said.

If you do notice Tourettes-style “likes” taking over your own language, Gehrman said to slow down, pause, and learn to live with the silence. “The silence is more disturbing to you than your audience,” she said.

She said it is worth paying attention to, especially when you are trying to sound professional, but we don’t need to launch any national campaigns.

But that’s, just like, her opinion, man.

Jessie O’Brien


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