What’s Not to Like?

indexThe other day I was just walking along when all of a sudden I stopped in my tracks. I was like, Eureka!

Why in the world would I do that?

Ah, it was a moment of enlightenment. I mean, I was like, At last! I know the answer!

I had hit upon the answer to a question that had been puzzling me for years. Why is it that so many of us nowadays say “like” (preceded by a form of “be”) to introduce something somebody said or thought?

Here’s a sample from Facebook:

“So I was talking to my friend the other day and I was like, “So, like, what did you do on Saturday?” and she’s like, “Not much. You?” And I’m like, “Yeah. Same thing.” And she’s like, “Fun.” And then we were both like, “Wow.”

Not that this way of introducing words or thoughts hasn’t been studied. Starting almost as soon as this “like” appeared early in the 1980s, the American Dialect Society journal American Speech has documented its origin and its spread to all ages and much of the English-speaking world.

It appears to have emerged from the “like”-saturated language affected by teenage girls of the San Fernando Valley in Southern California. If anybody ever liked “like,” it was the cool yet adorably clueless Valley Girls.

The Valley Girl language was satirized, and publicized, by Moon Unit Zappa and her father Frank Zappa in a 1982 song with the eponymous title “Valley Girl.” In that song “like” erupts about 30 times, most often with no role in a sentence except to mark the speaker as cool. But in one of the stanzas the Valley Girl declares:


So like I go into this like salon place, yknow
And I wanted like to get my toenails done
And the lady like goes, oh my god, your toenails
Are like so grody
It was like really embarrassing
She’s like oh my god, like bag those toenails
I’m like sure
She goes, I don’t know if I can handle this, y’know.
I was like really embarrassed.


Amid this thicket of “like”s are two showing the new use, the “like” with a form of “be” taking the place of “say” or “think”: “She’s like oh my god, like bag those toenails” and the reply, “I’m like sure.”

That was more or less the beginning. But my question is, why has that “like” spread so widely among people who don’t have the least trace of the Valley in their speech? Why do so many of us make routine use of it now?

And that was when I was like, Eureka! I understood! Because this use of “like” allows us to introduce not just what we said or thought, but how. Instead of merely saying words, “like” with “be” allows us to enact the scene. And that, I think, is because it’s an extension of a longstanding use of “like” to indicate manner: March came in like a lion, He raged like a madman.

So, I figured, “I was … like this” became “I was like … this,” where “this” was a gesture or exclamation or both.

It’s not as if I was the first to think of this. In a 2010 updating, the Oxford English Dictionary says this “like” is:

“Often used to convey the speaker’s response to something, or to introduce segments of an ongoing conversation between two or more speakers. Sometimes also used to introduce a gesture or facial expression evocative of the speaker’s feelings.”

But I finally understand the difference between plain “I said I would” and “I was like, I would!” And now I understand why we need the latter for the moments when we need to show as well as tell.

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