In 1982, 14-year-old Moon Unit Zappa and her father Frank released a song titled “Valley Girl” that spoke to a particular kind of materialistic teen prowling California’s malls for “bitchin’ clothes” and boyfriends.
“Like, oh my God!” Moon squeals. “Like totally!”
Once believed to be confined to the San Fernando Valley, the use of like spread virulently throughout the English language. Before long, the Zappas' song seemed less like parody and more like prescience. Like has risen from being a mere preposition to become a quotative compartmentalizer and discourse marker.
In the former, it can take the place of “they said” when you want to summarize (rather than quote) someone, as in, “This guy was, like, give me your number.” In the case of the latter, it can be used for emphasis or as a way of breaking up thoughts: “And then, like, This guy was, like, so upset when I wouldn’t give him my number.”
But, like, how did this happen?
'Like' Fer Sure
While the idea for "Valley Girl" came from Frank Zappa, who asked Moon to come into the studio and “just babble” in the affected “ValSpeak” voice of her peers, the use of like as conversation decoration actually predates the ‘80s and the Zappas by quite a bit.
According to linguist Alexandra D’Arcy, some of the earliest recorded uses of like came during the 1700s. In the 1788 novel Evelina, for example, Frances Burney writes that “Father grew quite uneasy, like, for fear of his Lordship’s taking offence.”
Like also appeared in Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novel Kidnapped (“What's like wrong with him?”) and can be found in Jack Kerouac’s 1957 On the Road, where the author expresses an aversion to “being all hung up on like literary inhibitions.”
“The word ‘like’ has a superpower; it’s able to do almost every job in the English language,” D’Arcy said in 2018. “I can’t think of another word that behaves in that way. No other word has that flexibility.”
While like is often associated with adolescents, that wasn't always the case. D'Arcy found an example of a 73-year-old man born in 1875 who uttered, “You'd never believe Pig Route. Like, you'd need to see the road to believe it.”
For years, like was firmly in the discourse marker camp, joining words such as so and indeed to act as a kind of road flare to let the listener know something important was about to be said or summarized. (Like that amazing Pig Route.) It can also help break a conversation up into segments, allowing both the speaker and listener to know new topics are being explored. It can be a hedge—something to express equivocal thoughts. (“I guess the movie was, like, OK.”) And it can be filler. (“So, where do you, like, want to go later?”)
But it was during the 20th century that like took on a new meaning—one that would have a radical effect on the English language.
By the time the Zappas’ song came around, kids were ready to seize upon like as a regional affectation and commandeer it as another way of separating themselves from grody adults by using it as a quotative, allowing them to paraphrase their thoughts or those of others. Like joined other ‘80s-speak such as totally, awesome, tenacious, mega, to the max, and practically anything else that could be uttered while near a mall fountain in leg warmers.
“Any in-group will have its own limited vocabulary,” Carl Bode, a professor of English at the University of Maryland, told The Washington Post in 1983, as the country was grappling with this strange new dialect. “In the government, they said ‘indicate’—why the hell don't they say ‘said’? Then you realize that in government reports ‘indicate’ is so blurry, you can't pin it down the way you can ‘said.’”
Like is often inserted where traditional quotatives (say, ask, tell) are used. But the meanings aren't interchangeable. If you said, “John said he was going to murder me,” the listener may infer John literally said that. But if you said, “John was, like, I'm going to murder you,” the listener will likely pick up on the paraphrasing and imagine John's posture, attitude, or tone, not his literal words.
But the rise of like in affiliation with the vapidity of the Valley had a negative consequence: It began to be associated with a lack of intelligence or substance, particularly when speakers use it to excess, a linguistic crutch that moves from being useful to becoming annoying.
History also proved this to be somewhat futile: No less a writer than Ambrose Bierce once scolded users of the word well, writing in 1909 that it was “a mere meaningless prelude to a sentence.” Extraneous words do, indeed, seem to be frowned upon in certain circles.
So why has like endured in the face of such criticism when totally has not? Writing for the Los Angeles Times in 1992, author Malcolm Gladwell argued that retooling like was a “development of potentially huge significance in the centuries-long evolution of the English language.”
Like allows one to quote—but not quite quote—another party, conveying meaning but not fidelity and sounding more urgent in the present tense. It can communicate someone's thoughts. (“I was like, I can't believe this is happening!”) It can be performative, allowing the speaker to capture the attitudes of people they're describing and in the present tense, making it seem more urgent. (“She was like, I gotta run!”) It can stress meaning, forcing the listener to place attention on important information being conveyed. Like is a siren call: This is important and you should listen closely.
Like can also convey nuance. Asking someone, “Would you, like, want to go out?” is slightly bashful; “Do you, like, think we should adopt this dog?” might imply hesitation.
How one uses like may depend somewhat on gender. It's been observed that women tend to use like as a quotative, while men usually use it as connective tissue for describing something. But it’s clear like has moved a long way beyond adolescent or gender splits. Even if you consider yourself a devotee of the English language, you probably inject like your conversation to make proposals: “I dunno, like three o’clock?” “This is, like, not how I imagined my day going.”
Like endures because of its versatility, adopting a spectrum of meaning few words in the language can equal. For a term that was reputed to be preferred by West Coast airheads, like is surprisingly, like, smart.
A previous version of this article noted that Jack Kerouac's On the Road was published in 1969; the story has been updated to correct this error.