When the 35-year-old man behind me recounts his weekend adventure to a buddy and drops a like into every sentence, another voice pops into my head. It’s 1982, and a fourteen-year-old girl is bleating, “I, like, love going into, like, clothing stores and stuff.…He was, like, freaking me out.…Gag me with a spoon!”
Older readers of this website remember Moon Unit’s father, Frank Zappa, as a renowned, quirky wordsmith in the pop music scene. But the verbal tics of his daughter’s San Fernando Valley peers drove Zappa crazy, and he had to fire back with satire. Indeed, his interspersed commentary in the song treated their speech as a disease: “She’s a Valley Girl / And there is no cure.”
I was just over the hill in Westwood at the time, starting graduate school in English, which would entail teaching freshman composition. Lots of kids from Southern California passed through our classes, but very little Valleyspeak popped up on campus. It was a regional and class marker, not something for intelligent adults. We thought the song a hilarious send-up of teen brainlessness and self-regard. Nobody in college would ever talk that way, and after the song became a hit, with Moon Unit performing on TV and a Hollywood movie inspired by it a year later, any grownup would certainly be embarrassed to utter, “And I was just, like…totally…’n stuff.”
Boy, were we wrong. Now it’s everywhere. The like lingo is the casual language of private affairs and the public square. The adolescence of the '80s has become the adulthood of the '10s. Everyone who adopts it confesses to bad grammar and an eighth-grade lexicon, but that doesn’t seem to matter. Apparently, apart from the smothering conformity of mass media and youth culture, the habit offers advantages that overcome the flat stupidity of the habit.
Millennials have a policy of not imposing on others, and the non-assertive pause “like” appeals to them. Think of the young man who says to the woman, “Uh, do you, like, want to, like, go out this weekend?”
It helps people who aren’t sure of their information to soften their advice. Think of the person giving directions who states, “Oh, the freeway is, like, five miles away and it’ll take you, like, twenty minutes to get there.”
It is a disfluency, a placeholder for when a person can’t find the word for what she wants to say.
Most people find these usages harmless, and linguists would judge them one of the ordinary evolutions of speech. Linguists long ago gave up on evaluative judgments of verbal taste. If enough people take up a mannerism, then we just have to accept it.
But English teachers and other guardians of eloquence sense that something deeper is going on. You see it especially in the “I was, like…” formulation. When a person recounts a delicious dinner from the night before and, instead of detailing the food, mentions each dish briefly, then blurts, “I was, like, WOW,” and, “It was just, like, amazing,” a far-reaching turn has occurred. We don’t hear much about the food, but we get effusive confirmation of the experience. How he felt when he chewed and swallowed matters more than what he actually ate. A powerful sensation came over him; he underwent a phenomenal moment—that’s what counts. We go from objective facts to subjective effects.
That intention makes “I was, like, …” into a narcissistic locution. Everyone says “like”; the word distinguishes you not one bit. The idiom is flat and routine. But verbal dexterity isn’t the issue. Words here play a different role than show-and-tell. They lead speakers and listeners into a unique space, a special individual self. What should be a description of the outside becomes a performance of the inside. We may all speak the same way, but every experience is singular and noteworthy.
This is, of course, altogether backwards. The best way for college students, young job applicants, and new co-workers to distinguish themselves is not to slip into like (and awesome, cool, stuff…). A twenty-five-year-old without a shred of teen-speak, who selects words carefully and treats her sentences as an individual expression, not as the scripted performance of an unusual self, is a joy to encounter. Parents, teachers, and mentors of all kinds need to tell the young the truth about this. The sooner they coach their charges out of the like disease, the more their charges will grow and prosper.
Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.