Like, OMG! ‘Like’ Is, Like, Totally Cool, Linguist Says

February 26, 2014 | 1 book mentioned 22 3 min read


If you have a teenager in your house, or if you just spend a lot of time around one, you may have found yourself patiently explaining that while the word “like” can mean many things, it isn’t a synonym for “said.” In fact, if you are under 40, you may have had this conversation with yourself. No element of modern speech, with the possible exception of all those business types using “impact” as a verb, comes in for as much abuse as what might be called “the Valley-Girl like.”

Meet Alexandra D’Arcy, who wants to destigmatize the contemporary use of “like.” In academic publications dating back to 2005, D’Arcy, a sociolinguist at the University of Victoria in Canada, has argued that the rise of “like” as a form of quotation has opened up new ways for people to narrate their inner thoughts in concrete, active terms in daily speech. Her work on the subject is detailed in her forthcoming book, Discourse-Pragmatic Variation in Context, due out in 2015.

“In writing, there’s a huge range of verbs that you can use and each of those evoke a different mood,” D’Arcy explains. “You can say: ‘she whispered,’ ‘she yelled,’ ‘she murmured.’ In speech, when you look at what people have been doing historically, really all you quoted was speech — ‘she said’ — and every once in a while you got a ‘think.’ What’s happened over the past 150 years is that we can quote so much more now. We can quote thought, or something that looks more like attitude. We can quote writing. We can quote sound. We can quote gesture. There’s a huge panoply of things we can quote and incorporate into our storytelling.”

She explains:

There used to be a time when my story might have been: ‘I saw her enter the room and I was terrified that she would recognize me and so I crouched down.’ Which is actually sort of boring. But now you can tell that as: ‘I saw her, and I was like, oh my god! I was like, what if she sees me? I was like, oh my god, I’ve gotta hide. I was like, what am I supposed to say to her?’ And it can go on. I’ve seen it where you have eight quotes in a row of strictly first-person internal monologue where that monologue becomes action. That’s new.

coverD’Arcy traces the expanded use of “like” to speakers born in the 1960s, but says the language feature came into its own with speakers born in the 1970s, “so that by the time you get to speakers born in the 1980s, you get these entire sequences of quotations that recreate an internal thought process.” This accords with the pop cultural history of the usage, which first became famous when Moon Unit Zappa (born 1967) accompanied her father Frank Zappa’s 1982 hit song “Valley Girl,” with an improvised monologue taken from slang she’d overheard at parties and at the Sherman Oaks Galleria in Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley. The same year, Sean Penn starred in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, partly filmed at the Sherman Oaks Galleria, and the rest is, like, history.

Where some traditionalists see the use of “like” as a dialog tag as portent of cultural End Times, D’Arcy views it as an important tool for self-expression, allowing speakers to narrate their interior thought processes in dramatic and easily accessible ways. Some commentators, she concedes, view the new use of “like” as a window onto “the lionization of self” among the post-baby-boom generation. But whatever the verbal tic reveals about its speakers, D’Arcy sees its advent as a net positive for the language. “It’s a very creative resource for us,” she says. “It gives us a lot of flexibility in the way we tell stories and recreate action.”

is a staff writer for The Millions and a contributing editor for Poets & Writers Magazine. His nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Salon, and The Economist. His fiction has appeared in Tin House, December, The Southampton Review, and The Cortland Review. His debut novel, Blithedale Canyon, is due out from Regal House in June, 2022