Like, I think it’s OK to say like

Photo by @benwhitephotography

When you picture the kind of person who says like (like, a lot), who do you see? Maybe someone like Cher Horowitz from the 1995 movie Clueless. Young, dumb, shallow, and, most importantly, female. She’s like, totally into her new shoes and like can’t believe that anyone could be like, “saying like all the time is bad.” Yet, that is the common thinking: the “nonstandard” uses of like are not only nonstandard, but bad. They indicate nervousness, insecurity, vapidity, or the unpardonable sin of simply being young and not speaking like your parents do. This derision of like has real world consequences: would you not hire a job candidate if they dropped a like or two or ten in an interview? The stereotype is that this makes them somehow less qualified. But what if we thought about like differently? What if, instead of seeing like as the way young, dumb kids speak, we could talk about like as evidence of language change, with roots older than we might guess? What if we stopped shaming like speakers, particularly young women, and instead celebrated them for innovating language? What if we cut Cher Horowitz a break?

My fondness for like doesn’t come out of nowhere. I’ll confess, I am a like speaker myself. And so are most of my peers, if not all of them. Weeks ago, I recorded a conversation among my friends, interested to see how often we actually say like in everyday conversation. While recording, I was on high alert for like, and I heard it more times than I might have expected. Forty times from four different speakers over the course of three minutes, in fact. Later, I asked my friends how they felt about the word like and if they noticed themselves using it. They were embarrassed of it in themselves, but forgiving of it in their peers. One friend told me, “I’m very conscious (of myself saying like). Catholic school drills into you language so we would get marked down on a presentation if we said like.” Another told me they were used to being corrected, but felt powerless to change it: “this is how I talk. So when people are like, ‘don’t like talk like that’ … that’s how I talk, like I can’t change it.” I didn’t tell them they’d said like 40 times in less than three minutes, but I almost didn’t have to — they knew it was a “problem” and knew they were under a microscope if they said it in the wrong setting.

I can relate. Once, I attended an emcee training for the student organization I’m in at my college. The facilitator was so put out by my use of like that she instructed the whole room to clap anytime I said it. Clap after clap after clap later, I stopped. But does that kind of shaming really work? I still say like in my everyday conversations, and I definitely still say it when I am representing my organization in an official capacity as an emcee. I believe this doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be taken seriously, or that other speakers like me should be viewed with stereotypes. The outcry over like lacks the proper context. Like has a history and, like it or not, a future.

The history of like is older, and less gendered than you think. Like is a term that has origins in the 1200s, sociolinguist Alexandra D’Arcy explains to Canadian news outlet CBC. “We really want to believe it’s new, but it’s just because we’ve only recently noticed it,” she says. Through studying linguistic archives, D’Arcy found instances of like used in ways speakers today might find nonstandard and new all over the 1800s. The sentence: “Well, right in front of that they had boards, like, built across,” is from a speaker born in 1874, not 2001. There are instances of both men and women using the phrase in her research. The newest form of like, the quoted like, has its roots in speakers born in the ’50s and ’60s, D’Arcy says. Boomers like my parents, who would scoff at the notion they ever would use such a construction.

Today, like speakers like myself are using the word for more than just filler. For like users, the term can yes, be used to express hesitation or as a thinking word, but also as a a qualifier, intensifier, or a hedge to what they’re saying, or even as a way to express speech or thought. Some examples: like as qualifier could be something like, “she’s like smart or something.” The like is complicating the speaker’s experience of the subject as smart. Semantically, it means something different than just saying “she’s smart or something.” If this isn’t intuitive, ask a younger speaker, and they’ll tell you those assertions mean different things.

We also see like performing multiple functions in a sentence, proving its utility far beyond just a filler word. In my recorded conversation, one speaker expresses dismay at hearing something “like four times.” The like intensifies the experience of hearing a the same thing four times, while also hedging — the speaker isn’t sure that four times is exactly how many times she’s heard it, but it works enough to exaggerate. Like is doing this interesting semantic work in the way speakers talk to one another out in the world, and if we simply deride it as the way “kids these days” talk, we miss out on how like is more than just a filler.

Another way that speakers have utilized like is in the quotative. The quotative like allows speakers to represent the speech of others, but with some wiggle room as well. When a speaker says, “they were like” or “I was like,” as they did many times in the conversation I recorded, they’re relaying what someone said in the narrative they are telling, but with room for interpretation. We naturally misremember or paraphrase the speech of others when retelling a story, and quoted like allows for that interpretation to happen: it’s not exactly what they said, it’s what they were like. As D’Arcy also explains, quoted like allows speakers to articulate their own inner thoughts in a way that is innovative. “We started quoting our own inner states more and more,” she says. This is a new way of explaining to others our thoughts and gestures, D’Arcy explains. Speakers can say they “were like ‘totally freaking out’” in response to a professor’s question in class while, in reality, never even breaking a verbal sweat. Importantly in all this, like speakers don’t even realize what they’re doing with the term, let alone do non-like speakers recognize them for their linguistic innovation. In almost every conversation I had about the word like, whether it was with my 22-year-old roommate or my 81-year-old former English teacher grandma, people identified like as a filler word and a filler word only. Speakers use like when they’re “rooting around in their head for the correct word,” my grandma explained. Or, as my roommate admitted, “I use like when I can’t think of anything else to say. I guess it’s better than ‘um.’” I asked every person with whom I talked to describe the typical like speaker. Who did they all conjure? Young, female, unsure of herself, maybe not so smart, likes to get in on what the trends are. Sound familiar?

I want to make something clear: I’m not arguing that like should dominate written and verbal speech from now until eternity, and that you should applaud every time you hear like slip out of the mouth of a speaker during a job interview or find it in the next Great American Novel instead of said. Like, just like other discourse markers, suffers from the same issues of overuse leading to annoyance. There was a sentence in my recorded conversation where a speaker used like 16 times in one utterance. Sixteen times. That is hard to stomach, even for a like defender like myself. But, I would argue, any word you would hear 16 times in one utterance would be jarring. Like often gets its own — unwarranted in my opinion — special critique, which we cannot ignore as being a little sexist. I would also posit that like speakers are not unaware of the dangers overuse as well as the value judgements on their speech based on like, and are capable of “code-switching,” so to speak, to fit the appropriate contexts. All of the like speakers I interviewed were painfully cognizant of their own use of it: they described professors who wouldn’t let them or their peers continue presentations while saying it, correction at the hands of parents or other adults in early childhood, and a general embarrassment that they continued to use like, even while knowing that it was “wrong.” Even when I explained my research and opinion to them, trying to erase some of the shame, my friends still caught themselves saying like in our conversation and tried to tamp it down.

What has all this shaming gotten us? It hasn’t, I would argue, made like go away. Although, like is older than we might realize, it seems like a newer phenomenon because we’ve just started to pay attention to it, perhaps because of films like Clueless and the rise of the Internet. Like is here to stay. Younger speakers pick it up from older siblings, media, and even their parents, at this point. Like it or not, speakers are going to continue the quoted, filler, and qualifier like for the foreseeable future. And who knows, maybe they’ll innovate a new form along the way.

To those like speakers who struggle to articulate why you say like and how you’re using it, I would say this: don’t be ashamed of how you talk. It isn’t productive. When non-like speakers correct or chastise you, here’s how to answer them: like in its “nonstandard” form isn’t just an epidemic of young, vapid women — it actually has roots deep in our language. Like also doesn’t just represent hesitation, nervousness, or a lack of certainty in speech as a filler word — it gets used to change semantic interpretations of sentences that speakers can make sense of, even when they don’t realize the linguistic work they just did. Like gives speakers tools to express imprecision and subtextual thought, a useful skill in conversation. And finally, like is here to stay. I promise, it’s not like the end of like the world or anything.