Where Did Our Strange Use of ‘Like’ Come From?

Some months ago, one of my readers sent me an invaluable cache of recordings of family members during therapy sessions in the 1960s. They are ordinary, seemingly educated, white Northeasterners ranging from their late 20s to late middle age speaking casually. And what stands out today, 60 years later, is how often they pause briefly when they talk. Their speech sounds almost herky-jerky to the modern ear.

The reason their speech sounds somewhat odd in that way is that today people like those on the recording would fill those many of those pauses with “like.”

It’s not, as sometimes assumed, that people used to talk formally, or “like books,” any more than they do now. Casual speech, always and everywhere in any language, is all about short sentences, often unfinished, often with occasional hesitations. But only in the late 1970s did “like” take its confident perch in American English.

The question is why. The answer is not the Frank Zappa’s cute 1982 ditty “Valley Girl” featuring his teenage daughter, Moon. For one thing, a single song doesn’t change the way people talk every day. For another, that song only leads to the question of why Moon was using “like” that way, given that it wasn’t just her personal quirk — she was part of what we now call a “thing.”

Some people think this usage of “like” reflects some kind of epidemic of uncertainty among young people. But the casual “like” has now been entrenched long enough that many of its users are graying at the temples and then some. How unconfident are these near-sexagenarians?

The modern “like” is actually a symptom of something more general about how languages change over time. Language, like nature, abhors a vacuum. All languages have a tendency to seep into corners of meaning and get explicit about them, instead of simply leaving them to context. Language likes to get picky.

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