The LIKE Epidemic

So if you can like help me figure out about when and where this linguistic virus like grew, I’d really appreciate it. People use this curious filler like all the time, even on news radio. I worry hearing moms talk like this; they depend on the word like every five syllables like oh my god. Their children start like picking up the like off the floor and mopping like every breath with it and the saddest part is like I’m not exaggerating.

So like is this originally like an American phenomenon? I really don’t mean to like offend anyone but like didn’t this start as a caricature of the blonde American Valley Girl*? I know East Coasters are also fond of their like. Did it sweep in from the West, fly over and spare the Midwest? Hit mostly like the major cities? Can older readers tell us if you like remember Americans talking this way like in the 50s or 60s? Hey readers like in the other parts of the world, have people like forgotten how to talk over there too? If the like virus does run amok there, is it like an airborne disease from the States or has it like grown from native soil?

As a linguist, I’ve been trying like hard to uncover the subconscious role of this filler. There must be like a rhyme and reason to the madness. Seems it like began with the strange substitute for the verb to say.

So he said, “I’m freezing!”ย  —-> So he’s like, “I’m freezing!”

How in the world did this like happen? Words take root, like have a purpose. This one’s got me. The filler doesn’t like seem to discriminate the part of speech that it wants to like introduce. We’ve like allowed a linguistic aberration, an unnecessity, to make its home in our speech like a five-headed monster that we’ve like taken in for a pet. Language takes the path of least resistance, will like look to save spit. It’s not supposed to grow weeds. Why is it that people like depend on this word? What is it they feel that they can’t quite like express without it? Why are we like wasting b r ea th?

This is like one of the serious posts on class and language like coming out of the Race Around the World.

*Wikipedia: Valley girl is a stereotype depicting a socio-economic class of white women characterized by the colloquial California English dialect Valleyspeak and vapid materialism. The term originally referred to an ever-increasing swell of semi-affluent and affluent middle-class and upper-middle class girls living in the early 1980s Los Angeles bedroom communities of the San Fernando Valley.

237 thoughts on “The LIKE Epidemic

  1. ‘Like’ is in plague proportions in Australia too. One of my daughters had the bug for a while, you end up waiting for the next ‘like’, like a dripping tap. ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. I’m from the UK (England) and here this word ‘like’ is like becoming very overused here like, because of the influence from, like American culture…like.

    *Please don’t shoot me” ๐Ÿ™‚

    Seriously though, while I’m all for expression, this word has slowly chipped away at my sanity, but I’m a very, like, tolerant person.


  3. Hahaha. One of the downfalls of communication along with abbreviations, social media and television. People dont even like know how to like talk to each other without it like being so ya know. Socially awkward. Great post.

  4. As a former San Fernando Valley girl and Southern California surfer, i don’t remember anyone actually using “like” as the stereotype suggests. Perhaps, the filler “like” arose elsewhere and later.

    On the other hand, as a middle school teacher, I can testify that the use of “like” is ubiquitous, so widespread that when I asked my classes if its use was a problem that we should do something about, they suggested one push-up for each inappropriate (filler) like, including for the teacher. We elected a “like” monitor or ten, and at first kids tried to say even more “likes” so they could show off, but eventually like’s used dropped to near zero, even for the teacher, just like that.

    • HA ha ha. Great intervention of something that indeed has turned into a problem. And how interesting that you don’t recall its use in real Valley life or as a surfer. A reader from the Valley confirmed the post. Huh. Perhaps you kept to a particularly intelligent group of Valley girls and surfers LOL!

  5. A terrible filler word which most definitely I don’t want to hear if there is a corporate trainer delivering a session. (We paid this person??!) I have a terrible habit by stringing thoughts together with “and” when I present. Pretty awful. I guess I’m not using “pretty” correctly.

    If a person is being paid to present a concept, it is important to speak well. Otherwise, I don’t want to listen to you.

    It’s kind of annoying to hear it especially from 40+ yr. old women. I hear it less from men but with younger men, it’s becoming more noticeable –the “like” crutch.

  6. Saw this on OM site. Thanks for posting. I don’t know where this comes from, but if you can tell me where bacon-y, yellow-y, tomato-y and the like (no pun intended) come from that would be great. Someone said to me the other day, “that’s not very wedding-y”. I looked at her and said what? She proudly repeated and told her I don’t know what wedding-y is.

  7. Great post! ๐Ÿ™‚ I have noticed people using the word like as a filler too! I do not mind if it is used as a filler once or twice, but it starts getting annoying if it is used many times within a single conversation. I have also noticed the phrase “you know” used in a similar fashion as well.

    In addition to “like” and “you know,” some other modern-day phrases that I do not enjoy hearing over and over again are “prego” (slang for pregnant), “baby bump”, “baby daddy”, and “my bad”.

  8. Having spent some time studying abroad in China, I can say that there are some Mandarin equivalents of the “like” plague, most notably in the overzealous use of the word “then” (ranhou), especially among younger speakers. Another notable over-used filler word is “so” (suoyi).

      • I’d have to imagine it mass media has a role to play. But since we’re taking about a foreign language, an influx of American culture is probably not the main culprit. Likely, “so” and “then” germinated and spread in the same manner “like” took over American English (which is anyone’s guess).

  9. The first time I recall ever hearing like used in this way was back in the 1980s. I was at university in South Africa and some friends and I were watching cartoons on a video we had hired (it was an American cartoon ๐Ÿ˜‰ ). One of the shows was about a cat (or a dog, it *was* a long time ago …) trying to sneak into a hen house. He dressed himself up to look like a chicken, got into a basket which he had placed at the farmer’s front door and rang the bell. When the farmer opened the door he held up a sign which read:
    “Like. I’m a chicken”.
    We thought this was hilarious and for weeks went about saying “like” at inappropriate times. I am sure we were very irritating.
    I still live in Southern Africa and nearly every child or young adult I know says “like” – maybe it’s our fault! Oh dear.

  10. Pingback: The LIKE Epidemic | A Day in the Life

  11. Pingback: Why I Never Like Your Comments | simplinspiration

  12. J’s two cents”

    -Like? just say no
    -Like is the high class version of ‘uh’
    -A pause can always be substituted for ‘like’ (hey there’s a thought…)
    -When a family member says ‘like,’ refer them to the ingenuity of the pause
    -never let the like phenom get u rattled
    -make a conscious effort to not ‘like’ anything; ie, ‘I like lima beans, I do not like feta cheese’

    Sooooooooo, using my own advice, I do not ‘like’ ur post– ha

    But to cover my tracks, ‘It’s (pause) very interesting…………..’

  13. I APPROVE of this post and yes, Canada was infected a long time ago with this bug that is only slightly less voracious than the Spanish Flu, or the Black Plague. Unfortunately, I suspect a cure for the phenomenon will prove even more elusive than that which we seek for the Common Cold. We are doomed. DOOMED I tell you.

  14. Where does the use of “Like” come from? About 1000 years ago the word came into use in Northern and Western Europe Its meaning was “to please” The areas in question were Britain, Holland and The Germanies. These areas were under social pressure of the times: The Vikings and Normans. Usage “what can I do to please you so that you don’t burn my home, rape my family or pillage my farm, or kill me”? 1000 years later we are under social pressure again. You call it an epidemic. We are still trying to please our neighbors to achieve some breathing space.

    Oh did I say breathing space? Well yes “Like” is used a placeholder until we come up with a more appropriate response. English language at least has only been around for about 1000 years so we are probably stuck with “like” for the foreseeable future. Maybe you can come up with a new word or term for this concept and make it go viral; but that would be an epidemic too.

    I think contemporary usage of the term “like” can be attributed to the counter-culture “Beat Generation”. Train of consciousness speech and the desire to engage in poetic language usage was desirable but not really accessible to the average person seeking to appear hip, cool, or groovy. So we fall back on the millennial standby: Like that’s really Beat. Like Hip, Like wow. Like Groovy man.

    The verb is: to please.

    “Weโ€™ve like allowed a linguistic aberration, an unnecessity, to make its home in our speech like a five-headed monster that weโ€™ve like taken in for a pet. Language takes the path of least resistance… Itโ€™s not supposed to grow weeds”?

    I disagree that the concept of “like” is an aberration. It is necessary! It is the overuse of the word that is objectionable not the word itself. Prune your garden. come up with an alternative word. Make it more than one syllable. – that will provise some variety. If you don’t know how to do this read Homer. Out loud. – Use the Fagles translations. They are poetic. Laertides, and Odysseus are the same guy. different number of syllables, different stress. The poetic meter is loose enough to encompass this. Its worked for the Greeks for 2800 years!

    I do not mean to be harsh here. How many times have I needlessy used the word ‘like” In this post?

    Who is the five headed monster who was taken in for a pet here? You have intrigued me.

  15. I respond as IamNoMan.
    The answer to the “like dilemma” is to NOT USE the word “like” in your writings or posts.

    You will still be using it in speech of course and as required by the conventions of the internet. If you must use the word in your posting or writing do so deliberately and only after exhausting all other alternatives. I think you and others will find this aesthetically pleasing. You wish “to please” others do you not?

  16. Yep, great observation. I think it started before my time, late 50s early 60s with the Beatnik generation and didn’t take hold until early 80s with the so-called Valley Girl epidemic. My daughter was afflicted with the virus sometime around ’98 and she still has it. I’m not sure there is a cure. “And he was like in a lot of pain when the car hit him, Dad…you know what I mean?” “Yes, dear,” I replied.

  17. When I was about 10 (which would been at the end of the 90s), the “like” plague hit my small town in Georgia. I started using “like” every few words. My father couldn’t stand it, so he charged me a nickel for every unnecessary “like” that I used. It’s amazing how quickly I dropped that habit, although I do still sometimes replace say/said with “was like” — which I consider unrelated to the filler trend as it’s actually a linguistic substitute for “said” and functions as a verb, a necessary part of the sentence.

    • That is so funny. What a great motivator out of bad habits. Would work in reverse for good ones, too. =) I know why you don’t feel the verbal use is part of the trend but I think it is. The trend just exploded in all ways, where the word started wearing many hats…all over the place. Impossible to clean up, it seems! Thanks for being here today. =)


  18. Geoff Nunberg on NPR suggests “I’m like…” implies a deeper connection than “I said…” or “I was.” He infers that a deeper expression of self is beling communicated.

    Personally, I think it’s just the opposite, distancing the speaker from his own experience, reflecting society’s increasing inability to connect to anything real.

    Then again, it may be nothing more than linguistic and intellectual laziness.


    • I actually agree with both your takes on it. That the laziness feeds the distancing for the lack of clarity you have about your own thoughts. Appreciate the follow and thoughtful read. Welcome, YG.


    • I disagree with your interpretation of its use here. When you use “I said,” you’re not painting a full picture, you’re omitting details such as facial expression, tone, body language, just to name a few. Saying instead, “I was like,” allows you to incorporate those other details by enacting whatever you’re trying to convey.

      • Not convinced. =) Why is the most basic verb for utterance (says/said) suddenly insufficient in the language after all these years? And who said “I said” was never accompanied by nonverbal expressions and tone, or that we incorporate them only with the use of the like?

  19. Just read this and realised this is written in 2014.(!!!) I’m a Chinese living in London and have been tortured by this for, like, years. This word is infectious and it is infectious in a terrible way. It’s almost similar to hearing a very catchy song from a musician you genuinely despise but you still can’t help wiggling your body secretly.

    I secretly judge people by how frequently they use this word when conversing with them – I would dump them in the bottom of my basket if they’re the deeply infected ones. Older people tend to not use this, which makes them a delight to talk to and teenagers are basically doomed. In the past three years, I can count the number of teenagers who didn’t speak like that in two hands. This is so worrying.

    I don’t have children, but when I do and when I find out if they speak like that, I would for sure beat the crap out of them.

    That’s a Chinese parent joke btw. It doesn’t really work.

    Very nice article Dear Holistic Wayfarer, I really enjoy reading it, like, really a lot!

    • “hearing a very catchy song from a musician you genuinely despise but you still canโ€™t help wiggling your body secretly.” LOL. You need not worry. A Korean-American mother here. I get the joke. Thanks so much for your time.

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