Oh... My... Ga-awd. Like, Why Is Everyone Saying LIKE So Much?

Linguistic pause or discourse marker: can anyone explain how we've come to use "like" so much in our daily speech?


In reviewing an otherwise illuminating interview with a local 15-year-old recently I was struck by the number of times this forthright and accomplished young person used the filler word "like" in her speech.

As it happens, I'm in a business where examination of word use and argot is driven by the need to understand and convey a person's meaning -- quickly. It was, I found, tough going to make my way through a conversation littered with "likes." Seven of them in one sentence, as it turned out -- two of them back to back, used in rapid-fire fashion, as in: "Like, like Harvard is like such a, like, conservative college."

Had to give her points for the polysyllabic usage, however.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not a hardcore grammarian and I don't mean to wag my finger. But I want to understand. I happen to believe words can and should be used well to help drive home a person's meaning, and that shielding meaning behind endlessly repetitive smokescreen words only muddies things and makes communication -- and understanding -- more difficult.

That, of course, is my opinion. Others seem perfectly fine with the cliched blather perpetrated by such current cultural icons as Kim Kardashian and the cast of Jersey Shore, and use it with mind-numbing regularity. It has almost become a type of speech in itself, and I have found myself looking up to scan a  room crowded with intelligent, successful adults to find the perpetrator of Like-speech dropping L-bombs amidst a paen to the local Lamorinda swim league or shopping center.

"Like," when used with its painfully drawn out cousin "Oh... mah... Ga-awd," are nothing more than filler words and stalls, verbal props used to shore up vapid conversation -- which is usually about nothing, and ultimately forgettable, but nearly everyone (except grouchy, friendless editor-types) appears to be getting by just fine in life with this lazy language in place.

Where did it come from? I guess we could blame the fetching but hauntingly shallow Cher Horowitz of "Clueless," or maybe Frank Zappa and Moon Unit who gave us "Valley Girl" and "Like, totally" in the early 1980s. Whatever its roots, this Californianization of American youth-speak has branded us the world over as knuckle-dragging, pot puffing simpletons undeserving of our role as global leaders.

It appears it will be an uphill climb for many of us before we can say we've reclaimed our native language and put it to its best possible, intended use. This was driven home this week as I reviewed quotes from the survivors of the mass shooting in Aurora, with witness statements replete with likes and OMG's and even the unfortunate "Holy crap." That last one is a personal fave. I mean, nothing sums up your near death experience at the hands of a crazed gunman quite as well as the elegant: "I saw him walk in carrying all those guns and I was, like, 'Holy Crap...'"

Pretty much says it all for us.

So what are we to do? Some parents and teachers, those who haven't succumbed to Like Disease themselves, are so irritated by the virus-like growth of “like” as an idiom of the young that they've branded it a verbal tic -- much like the string of profanities blurted by a Tourette patient -- and banned it, as much as they can, from their classrooms and presence.

Some linguists, however, have called use of the L-word an innovative development in white English, a discourse-marker used to introduce quotable speech -- or a non-verbal expression like a shrug or a sigh, as in: "I'm like... (shrug, indicating confusion)."

Maybe that's why I'm having such a difficult time with this. My job has always been to capture language, hopefully in its fullest, most expressive form and language is eluding me, reduced and abbreviated until it has become nothing but forgettable, repetitive expressions the user assumes is conveying their meaning.

For me, at least, it's not. But how about you?

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Kathleen July 25, 2012 at 06:08 PM
Maybe "like" is the new "um", which even highly educated speakers seem to insert multiple times in speech. At least "like" is a word that has actual meaning, but both seem to be simply verbal tics.
JoeB July 25, 2012 at 06:08 PM
Like, Dude! Oh-my-gawd, your observations were like so totally awesome! Capiche?? (please note that there was not a single "a", pronounced "uh", in the previous comment)
lamorinda mom July 25, 2012 at 06:27 PM
My husband and i have noticed this trend, also. We are around teenagers regularly and hearing the "like" filler makes me cringe. It becomes a bad habit. In my day, people used "uh" as the filler word of choice, which my grammatically minded mother hated, so perhaps it is just a change in convention. Challenge someone to not use "like" in a conversation and they will be incapable of stopping (once they have caught the disease). Try it! I can't imagine how these people sound in a job interview when they are under pressure.........
Amanda July 25, 2012 at 09:38 PM
When I used to work in high tech, I would often interview foreign software programmers who would begin all of their sentences with "like". For example, "Like, I am a C++ programmer and like I also know Java. Like I am interested in your position that like I saw on your website." I was always curious about how/where they learned English. Hopefully most teenagers will grow out of saying "like" and "I'm all".
Nancy Lee July 26, 2012 at 02:50 PM
It's everywhere and it's annoying. I hear moms talking in young-talk with their kids all the time and it makes me want to scream.
Nikki July 26, 2012 at 04:29 PM
Unfortunately, with technology becoming the ever increasing replacement for interpersonal communication, chances are it will only get worse.
Vulpecula July 26, 2012 at 05:38 PM
We can have anywhere from 3 to 12 teenagers in my home at any given time especially during the summer. Our kitchen is large and that's where the food is so there is a tendency to gather around the island/kitchen table. I do my best not to intrude and when I do go in the kitchen and be invisible. However as I listen to the conversations and the use and frequency of the word "like". I go nuts. I still do not say anything. Instead I have a magic marker and I go to the window and start making on the glass the number of times I hear the word. Now it has become a game but in one or two cases, when I look at them, I can tell they are making an effort to change a very annoying habit. Good grief.
natalie johns July 26, 2012 at 06:36 PM
I'll bet the magic marker thing goes over bigtime with the kids!
theresa July 26, 2012 at 08:30 PM
i find it annoying and am perplexed how pervasive it's become. but my generation (i'm now 55) had its own awkward filler. don't forget the use of "you know." when i heard a friend using it so much, i made a deliberate effort to rid it from my vocabulary. it disappeared. awareness is the key so parents do have a responsibility to bring it to their kids' attention. my pet peeve is "me and janet," "me and my dad," etc. i was taught that you mention yourself last -- for example, "janet, dad, and i." i suppose that in this day and age of instant photos and other ways of self-indulgence, it makes perfect sense to mention one's self first.
Sandy July 26, 2012 at 08:35 PM
El Cucuy July 26, 2012 at 09:09 PM
Esteemed pubic radio interviewer Terry Gross uses 'like' as filler a LOT. Maybe these grammatically troubled teens are merely taking their cues from the pros.
J.D. O'Connor (Editor) July 26, 2012 at 09:37 PM
Hey, CB... good post but you may want to take a second reading with particular focus on the second word of your sentence... it's a common trap.
Amy Chu July 27, 2012 at 05:32 PM
I have been amazed by how supportive audiences are of this - either small private audiences or national ones listening to someone drone on in this style of speech. Strip the likes out of what these people say and you will quickly learn that they have nothing at all to say, but everyone is nodding and laughing and giggling as if they are fonts of wisdom. I have also learned that people who engage others in this sort of speech don't like it when you call them on it. It amazes me that adults have adopted the practice.
X July 27, 2012 at 09:23 PM
I blame cigarettes. The evil ways of the word "like" can be traced back to Winston, no doubt. "As". It should have been "as", not "like". But, it was a cute jingle for the Beverly Hillbillies. http://youtu.be/v8bpg4C9VDw
Lance Howland (Editor) July 28, 2012 at 01:18 AM
It's been like going on for generations. I wrote a column about the use of "like" among my peers (not me, nuh uh) for the old college paper in the 1970s. I had this great gig where I could write these thumb-sucker columns about like mostly nuthin' -- kind of like like like being the editor of Lamorinda Patch.


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