Saying the word ‘like’ has long been seen as a sign of laziness and stupidity. But its use is actually richly nuanced, goes back to Shakespearean times, and is an indicator of, like, intelligence.
I’m listening to BBC Radio 1, where they are interviewing the 26-year-old actor and singer Dove Cameron about her globally successful hit, Boyfriend. The DJ, Melvin Odoom, asks her, “Do you think that your acting career has helped you with, kind of, like, your music career?”“For me they’re, like, the same energy,” replies Cameron. “Which is, like, when people are, like, ‘You have to choose,’ I’m like, ‘They feel the same!’”It’s the most predictable celebrity interview exchange ever uttered, remarkable only for one word that repeats and repeats.“It’s a really funny one,” says Fiona Hanlon, who has worked at the station for more than 10 years, including producing Nick Grimshaw’s breakfast show and Maya Jama’s weekend show. “If a guest says ‘like’ too much, we’d get texts from the listeners. If a DJ says it too much, sometimes a boss might pop in and mention it … It’s just seen as a bit lazy, a bit dumb. I was always very aware of it.”Why do people have such a problem with “like”? Is it because it simply won’t go away? In 1992, Malcolm Gladwell wrote a robust defence of the word and the way it carries “a rich emotional nuance”, responding to what had already been a decade of criticism. This did nothing to settle the debate. Linguists agree that usage of the word has increased every year since then, to the point where in one five-minute exchange on Love Island in 2017, the word was uttered 76 times, once every four seconds.It’s just seen as a bit lazy, a bit dumbBy the time I was at secondary school in the early 2000s, “like” was just a natural part of speech. Transcribing the interviews I did for this piece, I say it constantly. When I do, I find it a friendly crutch, signalling to the person I’m talking to that we’re having a spontaneous and unrehearsed conversation, that I’m listening and thinking. But despite its long history and widespread use, for many it remains enraging.AdvertisementPoliticians, educators and business leaders have complained it makes speakers sound stupid. When Michael Gove was education secretary in 2014, he used an update to the national curriculum to require students to speak in “standard English”, even in informal settings, in all British schools. This reinforced the idea that there was only one right way to speak English. By 2019, one primary school head in Bradford, Christabel Shepherd, said she banned the word because, “When children are giving you an answer and they say, ‘Is it, like, when you’re, like…’ they haven’t actually made a sentence at all. They use the word all the time and we are trying to get rid of it.” Nick Gibb, then schools minister, praised the decision and said others should follow suit.Scores of recruitment specialists and public-speaking coaches have publicly bemoaned the word’s rise and say those who use it prevent themselves from getting opportunities. One law firm in America sent a memo to just its female employees and told them: “Learn hard words,” and “Stop saying ‘like’.” Peter Mertens, an associate at PR firm Burson Cohn & Wolfe, has said: “There is nothing that will [lead you to being] dismissed more quickly than a few too many ‘likes’ during a meeting or on a call.” There’s even an app, LikeSo, recommended by businesses, which listens to your speech and promises it can stop you using the word.There is nothing that will [lead you to being] dismissed more quickly than a few too many ‘likes’Peter MertensIn the UK, this chorus is made louder by a group of mostly old and white celebrities and Spectator columnists who crusade against its use. In 2010, Emma Thompson complained to the Radio Times that she “went to give a talk at my old school and the girls were all doing their ‘likes’ and ‘innits?’ which drives me insane… I told them ‘Just don’t do it. Because it makes you sound stupid.’” Gyles Brandreth, writing in the Oldie (where else?), complained that “like” was “the lazy linguistic filler of our times” and “very very irritating”.AdvertisementWhy is it so detested? “Well, humans have an innate tendency to judge. People who are very liberal in other aspects of things, who would never judge someone based on race or sexual orientation or whatever, still have this thing about language,” says Carmen Fought, professor of linguistics at Pitzer College. “They want to freeze it and they want to judge it. I absolutely guarantee you that in Shakespeare’s time, there was some schoolmaster walking around saying, ‘Don’t say “soothe” Portia, that sounds so tacky, say “For soothe.”’”
There’s certainly an element of sexism here and the detractors of “like” say it makes you sound girlish and stupid, arguing that this is a newish tic said mostly by women and that it’s a meaningless “filler” word that doesn’t add anything to a sentence’s meaning. But they are, in fact, wrong on every count.
The first point is that “like” isn’t just a filler word. It’s actually an incredibly versatile and dynamic word. The linguist Alexandra D’Arcy, who wrote a book on the word, outlined its many uses. There are its traditional uses as a verb, “I like the smell of what’s cooking” and a preposition, “This tastes like it was made in a restaurant”. Then there are the ones that are the subject of scorn. The first of these is the quotative “like”: “He cooked a spag bol for me last night, I was like, that’s delicious.” It allows you to tell a story without promising complete accuracy. Indeed, one of the most enjoyable things about this kind of “like” is that you can tell an anecdote that makes you sound wittier and more erudite than you actually are because you’re not promising exactly what was said but the feeling of what was said.