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Like, Wow!

By Geoffrey Nunberg

Commentary broadcast on "Fresh Air," March 20, 2001

    I had been thinking about the word like, so I was on the lookout for it in all the press interviews with students after the school shootings near San Diego last week. Understandably, most of the kids were struggling to put their thoughts in words, and their speech was punctuated by um's and er's and you know's. But of the dozen students that I listened to, not one used the word like. Nobody said, "Like, they were yelling at us to leave" or "I was like, 'let's get out of here.'"

    There's no question that all these kids use like that way in their ordinary conversation -- you'd be hard-pressed to find a dozen adolescents in the whole country who don't. But whatever critics and teachers may think, it's more than just an unconscious tic, or a filler that people stick in while they're vamping for time. It's a word with a point of view, and speakers can shut it down when that isn't what they want to convey.

    Like a lot of modern sensibilities, that point of view and that use of the word got their start with the hipsters of the fifties. In their mouths, it wasn't a sign of inarticulateness, the way people would come to think of it later. Nobody ever accused the hipsters of being at a loss for words, even if it wasn't always easy to know what they meant. But the word contributed to the sense of a language that didn't actually mean anything so much as it evoked, the way a jazz riff does. It turned everything the hipsters said into a kind of extended simile, as if to say, "I, like, gotta use words when I talk to you."

    Mainstream Americans didn't learn that kind of talk from the hipsters themselves. They got it from TV and radio programs that diffused the lingo in a diluted form. DJ's like Wolfman Jack and Philadelphia's Hy Lit lifted their patter from the hipster comic Lord Buckley, who also originated the shtick that that Steve Allen worked over in his bopster fairy tales. Sid Caesar had a bopster character called Progress Hornsby, and Lennie Bruce did a much more dead-on routine in the persona of jazz musician Shorty Peterstein. And then there was Maynard G. Krebs, the goateed beatnik wannabe that Bob Denver played on the late-fifties TV show The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. Krebs was given to saying things on the order of "Like, wow! That is, like, really, like, cool!"

    To a lot of adults, that was pretty much the way all teenagers were starting to sound. In short measure, critics were making like the symptom of an alarming decline in communication skills among the nation's young people. That single word seemed to embody all the pernicious influences at work in the culture -- lax standards, television, poor manners, and a spreading mindlessness. And it's true that the teenagers who picked up on like seemed to use it indiscriminately. But there was method in it -- one way or another, like lays a certain distance between speakers and their words. Sometimes it can soften a request, as in "Could I, like, borrow your sweater?" Sometimes it communicates disaffection: "Whaddawe suppose to, like, read this?" Or you can use it to nod ironically at the banality of your words, as in, "Do you suppose we could, like, talk about it?" That's one use of the word that just about everybody has picked up on; I even use it in email.

    However like is used, though, you can still hear faint echoes of the hipster, in that implicit awareness of the limits of description. That might explain why young people in the eighties started to use the word as what linguists call a quotative marker, as in "I was like, 'That is so uncool.'" The construction first came to national attention in 1982, when Moon Unit Zappa used it in her song "Valley Girl," and it was quickly stereotyped as adolescent female speech -- though in fact boys probably use it as much as girls do. And in short order the new use of like was joined by other quotatives like "I was all..." or just "So she's 'Oh my GOD!'"

Not surprisingly, this set in motion another wave of denunciations from critics who wondered why teenagers couldn't say "I said" instead of "I was like." But those aren't the same. What follows I said is a report of people's words; what follows I was like is a performance of their actions. That's why I was like is as apt to be followed by a noise or gesture as by a sentence. Say is for telling, like is for showing.

    It's no wonder like has become one of the linguistic emblem of the age. There's no other single word that embodies all the sensibilities that have been converging in the language since the hipsters first made their appearance -- the ironizing, the mistrust of description, and the way we look to drama and simulation to do the work that used to be done by narrative. As the critic Raymond Williams once put it, "We have never as a society acted so much or watched so many others acting."

    In the midst of all that theatricality, it's a little silly to get all huffy when the language comes up with a new construction that sets the scene for our dramatizings. And anyway, language doesn't determine our mindset nearly as much as people like to think it does. When those kids down in San Diego County were faced with talking about the school shootings, they had no use for like and the distance it would have interposed between them and their words. They know as well as anybody that there are times when you have to throw yourself back on narrative to make sense of things.

Copyright © 2002 Geoffrey Nunberg All rights reserved.