It's, like, the Like Virus
September 4, 2001 3:49 PM   Subscribe

It's, like, the Like Virus An amusing and misanthropic inquiry into a mysterious linguistic phenomenon.It adds as much to our fair English language as barnacles do to a wharf or calculi to a healthy kidney. So, like, what is it about the word that makes people like us it all the time? (Question mark used to indicate raising vocal pitch at end of sentence)
posted by fellorwaspushed (30 comments total)
"Like" has a lot of annoying uses, but I think one of the ones he discusses is actually useful. Often someone will say, "I was like..." rather than "I said..." to indicate she is about to act out what she was feeling at the time rather than simply reporting the words she said.

In face-to-face communication we use a lot of gestures, facial expressions, vocal expressions, etc. that we don't use in writting, so it makes sense that people feel a need for a word that introduces a "quotation" of all of those things, as opposed to 'said' which usually only implies quoting the literal words.

And whenever you have a need in language, something is sure to rush in and fill it. No matter how ugly.
posted by straight at 4:06 PM on September 4, 2001

Though as noted, straight, the listener is left to decide whether the speaker is quoting, expressing an attitude, or distorting the events from her perspective.

So he was all like "My shit don't stink." Did he actually say that, or did he just say "Leave me alone" but appear to sneer? Or did he not sneer at all, speak politely but firmly, and get branded with a sneer by the speaker? You can't tell. I imagine this speech pattern makes witness cross-examination, for example, rather challenging.

Apart from passing judgement on the usage, though, there's a very interesting shift here in terms of elevating subjective experience. I wonder whether it's related to increasing reliance in our society on passive entertainment such as TV or movies. It would be instructive to compare this to preliterate societies, as well -- it certainly seems to be a post-literate locution.

There are probably interesting reasons for uptalk, as well. The conventional wisdom is that it expresses uncertainty, but it doesn't seem to communicate that in the social milieu where it's found, only to older or more educated listeners.
posted by dhartung at 4:28 PM on September 4, 2001

So, then,

"That guy's, like, a pretentious fuck"

should be changed to

"That guy is a pretentious fuck."
posted by mrbula at 4:37 PM on September 4, 2001

And whenever you have a need in language, something is sure to rush in and fill it. No matter how ugly.

It amuses me that people talk seriously about maintaining the "beauty" of the English language -- a language chock full of many distressing irregularities, disturbing neologisms, and ungainly borrowings. There's no beauty there to save, folks. English works, and it is very flexible, but it is hardly so elegant that we need to worry about "like" spoiling it.
posted by kindall at 4:40 PM on September 4, 2001

I enjoyed the article, and agree with most of it. There should be no discussion of whether the usage of the word ‘like’ outside of a quote or description is justified. It’s not.

Though I think you have somewhat of a point straight on ‘like’ substituting ‘said’. Well, I think it’s a matter of preference. I still agree with David, I think even here the word is caused by laziness. Think of a person as a recorder, and say you need to communicate that information back, it's a lot easier to just play it back instead of converting it to a thought or a story.

Playing it back: And she was like "I never received your fucking packages or signed the slips. So what the hell are you talking about? I hate you fuckers!"

Converting it: And she said that she never received the packages or signed the slips; she basically didn't know what we were talking about; she said she hated us.

You can see how much work goes into the conversion and the filtration. There may not be a real advantage over the later method, still, there is a reason for consideration and launching into a theatrical performance every time someone asks you something seems a bit too much. It’s the same with all the hugging and yelling and shouting, when an important situation arises there is nowhere left to go.
posted by tiaka at 4:40 PM on September 4, 2001 would you parse Dr. Dre's
"It's like this and like that and like this, and uh, it's like this"?
posted by arco at 4:45 PM on September 4, 2001

I find "like" quite useful. It actually stands for "it goes something like this", meaning not verbatim but merely similar or metaphorical. It's shorthand for "here is my best rendition of what happened".
Only when it is misused, as a merely verbal crutch, does it become annoying. Language is, like, no fun - meaning it might still be, but I'm over-emphasizing here - when it stands still.
Anything is preferable to the old seventies-style "you know".
posted by MiguelCardoso at 5:17 PM on September 4, 2001

" would you parse Dr. Dre's..."

with a forty in my hand my friend, with a forty in my hand.
posted by jcterminal at 6:39 PM on September 4, 2001

And let's not forget the equally ugly cousins of like: GO and WENT.

EXAMPLE: Girl 1: "So then what happened?" Girl 2: "I went, 'So what do you think you're doing?' And he went, 'You know...I just wanted to see what would happen!' And so I go 'No way! Get away from me, you jerk!'"

Bleh. Far be it from me to attempt to "save" English, but fer cryin' out loud, when they start peppering their every utterance with LIKE, GO, YOU KNOW, and WENT, come on...forget "ugly" or "proper," it's just plain old annoying.

Using improper words & vernacular...that's a paddling. (Jasper)
posted by davidmsc at 6:56 PM on September 4, 2001

I love how he backs up his arguments with like, a transcript of a New Yorker article from 1995... and he like, uses the word 'post-modern'. This reads like a Jedidiah Purdy essay.
posted by GriffX at 7:36 PM on September 4, 2001

damn it, I actually just wrote a whole wicked long post about this, and it got destroyed. I hate computers.
posted by jeb at 7:40 PM on September 4, 2001

i'll buy what miguelcardoso's saying.

It can be a form of shorthand to indicate that one is paraphrasing.
At a guess I'd say it's symptomatic of a heightened awareness that one may be held accountable for one's words (due to an increasingly litigious society?), so the safest recourse is to issue 'like' as a little disclaimer. The expanded subtext becomes: the actual event/thing I'm telling you about bears some similarity to my account of it, but by no means should you infer that my account implies any truth claim beyond the existence of some similarity.
posted by juv3nal at 7:58 PM on September 4, 2001

you shouldn't use "parse" and "dr. dre" in the same sentence. there's just something wrong about that.
posted by lotsofno at 8:45 PM on September 4, 2001

Parsing Dr. Dre requires melanin that I simply don't possess.
posted by kindall at 9:01 PM on September 4, 2001

Ours is a "like" culture, all about calculated imprecision.

>> would you parse Dr. Dre's
"It's like this and like that and like this, and uh, it's like this"?

I heard he used that line in the process of writing the track in order to demonstrate the desired flow to the other musicians, but liked the sound of it so much that he left it in as the chorus. If so, "this" and "that" would be self-referring indexicals.

But that's probably, like, an urban legend, or whatever.
posted by johnb at 9:17 PM on September 4, 2001

I think, concerning 'uptalk', that it's common enough in my generation that I didn't even notice it was odd until I read the article. Our generation doesn't want to be wrong, so we'll answer questions that we're not positive about with a hint of 'maybe' in our voice, but without the verbalization. Concerning the end of sentences, as far as I'm aware, the British actually use the vocal tone of our (our being American) question mark after an explanation point, and the vocal tone of our ! after a ?, which I thought was interesting.
posted by Kevs at 10:11 PM on September 4, 2001

if you want to hear an over-used word listen to how many times people use the word actually. everything is actually this or actually that or they were actually going to do something. actually, it drives me nuts.
posted by suprfli at 11:42 PM on September 4, 2001

People with strong English skills always favor by-the-book English. People with weak English skills are always, like, anything goes, like, and are quick with charges of elitism and Grundyism. This continual argument between prescriptivists and descriptivists is necessary to the health of any language.

[And if there weren't a rule against self-linking, I'd send you to my page to read what I think of 'like' and similar filler words.]
posted by pracowity at 12:05 AM on September 5, 2001

if you want to hear an over-used word listen to how many times people use the word actually. everything is actually this or actually that or they were actually going to do something. actually, it drives me nuts.

like (lol) when someone is doing something and decides to do something else, saying to themselves, "actually..."
posted by lotsofno at 12:48 AM on September 5, 2001

Speaking of bad language habits... (=cough=), my father had an aversion to "like" and "ya know", which my middle sister spewed with abundance. One night at dinner, Dad was sitting next to her and started tapping her face everytime she said the offending words. It was really funny to watch.

And no, she wasn't cured of her speech habits right then, though she =did= talk more slowly for the rest of the night. And her face turned really red.

Still, I get tired of these snooty proscriptive grammarians. If people went around to the Angles and Saxons saying "Dammit, you're supposed to say `In yearem sixe'" (and their lessons were learned), we'd still have case endings for our nouns. As it is, the case endings survive only in our pronouns. =shudder= noun declension....

If one understands what they're saying easily, then it is fulfilling a function. I use "they" as 3rd person singular all the time, "ya" for 2nd person singular, "y'all" for 2nd personal plural and "all y'all" when I'm feeling really inclusive. I don't listen to the grammarians, because I'm intentionally trying to =change= the rules in the grammar books (and besides, many of these grammatical entities stretch farther back than the current grammar rules).

Anyway, I had better stop. I've done my specialized "grammar spew" for pages upon pages in my journals already.
posted by meep at 1:01 AM on September 5, 2001

lotsofno- Ack No!! That`s an OK use of actually (OK in that it doesn`t irritate me, as I am the final arbiter of truth and beauty in this world). I realize that this is the meaning that suprfli provided. But that`s not the true evil that lies behind the word "actually"...

The true horror is it`s use in anecdotes. example: when someone is complaining about a microsoft product and says "Well, Windows was actually working for once and.."

This usage drives me nuts to no end. It must be stopped.

Meep, however is right about the first person singular "they." Far less clumsy than "he or she" wih no sexism to complain about. Plus, you have to remember that language is constantly changing.

Even if you set up institutions to prevent it, like the French
posted by chiheisen at 1:07 AM on September 5, 2001

The true horror is in it's use of anecdotes . . .

Apostrophe abuse. That, like, drives me nuts, actually.
posted by swerve at 2:06 AM on September 5, 2001

swerve, it`s not apostrophe `abuse`. They actually like it.
posted by chiheisen at 2:12 AM on September 5, 2001

It doesn't matter what like means, it just gives a default rhythm to sentences for those who are afraid that what they're saying won't have any impact, in other words insecure adolescents. And if everyone else in your peer group does it so much the better. When I was a teenager my brother couldn't stop saying 'right'. "No, listen, right, it's like this, right". They grow out of it, bless them.
posted by Summer at 3:23 AM on September 5, 2001

Then there's phatic* communication, in which people say things such as "How are you?" but don't really want to know.

From the OED: Phatic, adj. Of or pertaining to speech or verbal expression; spec. in phatic communion, a term applied by B. Malinowski (see MALINOWSKIAN a.) to speech communication as used to establish social relationships rather than to impart information. Hence used gen. to denote formal or trivial verbal contact.
posted by Mo Nickels at 5:49 AM on September 5, 2001

Whenever I hear a (usually American but unfortunately increasingly also British) 'Have a nice day!' or some other prescribed and compulsory nicety from someone who blatantyly couldn't give a rat's arse whether I do or not. Ack!
posted by Markb at 6:00 AM on September 5, 2001

I don't get it. Nobody speaks English by the book, unless they're either a) just learning it or b) giving a speech which was prepared in advance. An experiment for anyone interested: Have someone follow you around all day and record everything you say--I seriously doubt the contents of the tape will be polished, sparkling oration.
I understand the need for language standards and grammatical rules (most of which people *do* understand and use unconsciously), but a world of people who all talk like Henry Higgins would get really boring after a while.
posted by darukaru at 7:13 AM on September 5, 2001

I was just at a conference discussing research on spontaneous speech production and comprehension. We discussed some recent evidence that spontaneous speech (with all of its ums, errors, likes, and other such non-standard phenomena) is easier for comprehenders to deal with than cleaned up, standard, by-the-book speech that mirrors written language. In addition, fluent speakers of a second language tend to use these non-standard things quite often in their L2, while intermediate speakers do not. Both of these facts (among others) lead me to believe that nonstandard speech phenomena may be a fundamental part of language use.
posted by iceberg273 at 7:29 AM on September 5, 2001

I'm sure you're right iceberg. It's a language fashion that will disappear when the next one comes along.
posted by Summer at 7:43 AM on September 5, 2001

Agreed, there's no need to drop "like" all over one's sentences, although my personal bug-bear is the very Essex "turned round and said", which I have heard at every junction of a related conversation and which drives me to distraction.

All that said, I have a crisp £10 to back up my accusation that, when speaking, the author of that article overuses the word "actually", or the word "basically", or, more likely, both.
posted by scribe at 8:16 AM on September 5, 2001

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