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“Like” has become one of the most useful words in our vocabulary. So useful in fact that we only notice how ubiquitous it is in colloquial speech if we’re specifically listening for it or if it’s emphasized for comedic effect. But what’s so funny about ‘like’? Considering that people who use the word do so for a host of linguistically valid reasons — to approximate, exaggerate, and even quote someone — it’s a little strange that overuse of the word is still associated with less-than-intelligent immature women.
It is particularly associated with teenage girls portrayed as uninterested in any sort of intellectual pursuit and are, like, always talking about their hair and make-up! Just listen to Frank Zappa’s “Valley Girl,” a hit from 1982. The first YouTube comment on the video was about how scary it is that some girls still talk like this.
Oops, I just used the L-word “correctly,” but why is it so much more acceptable there than in other contexts? New words fill our dictionaries every year, so why do we grapple with the fact that “like” now has multiple usages? Maybe it has nothing to do with the word itself and everything to do with the stereotypical image attached to its excessive use: the California-loving valley girl Zappa refers to, or maybe the giddy young woman talking to her friends about her crush. Notice anything in particular? For some reason, “like” is often ignored for its merits and shoved aside as a word for the illiterate, and more often than not, the illiterate female.
Not surprisingly, language remains a great tool for misogynists, but here’s the thing: I’ll bet that the people who ridicule those who use “like” have their own crutch. One use of “like” is to fill the silence while one is thinking of how to complete a thought, but other filler words, such as “um”, “uh” and “er” don’t get nearly as much flack. One could argue that those aren’t actual words to begin with, so in defense of “like’” at least it is considered an actual word and not just a Neanderthal sound. Of course, “like” can be used to express hesitation as well, but it wouldn’t be right to completely discount the thought that follows just because the person was more comfortable using a filler word rather than a pause. It can also be a way of expressing imprecision. Say you are recalling a conversation you had with a friend; rather than say “He said things were good,” you might prefer to approximate his exact words by using “like”: “He was like, things are good.” In a way, you’re conveying to your listener that you are not quoting your subject directly, but are recalling to the best of your ability.
Other filler words, such as “um,” “uh” and “er” don’t get nearly as much flack
I think it’s time we acknowledge that using “like” in everyday conversation is useful, and at this point, ubiquitous. It’s not limited to the negative stereotypes we associate it with. Some people may choose to use different words for a similar effect, but we can’t deny that “like” is a convenient way of enhancing our speech in ways we may not even be aware. It’s time we stop attaching negative and sexist associations with the word and embrace its versatility. For those who are worried that we use “like” way too much for our own good, at least these non-traditional uses are limited to conversation and don’t come up in our written work. Well, with the exception of, like, this article.
Photo Credit: Jon White/Photo Editor