How the Modern Vocabulary Has Been Replaced With: OMG, I was Like

Think back to the last conversation you had with a friend. Good? Now say that conversation out loud. This was mine:

Yesterday I ran into a friend at school and I said, “Hey how’s it going?”. And he was like, “It’s going well, busy from school and all”. I was like, “Yep, I feel you. What is your semester looking like this winter?” He was like, “I have Mondays and Fridays off, pretty good right?”. And I was like “That’s amazing! Anyways, I’ve got to run to class. See you around”.

Did you notice something? Perhaps because this conversation is written and not spoken aloud, it is probably blatantly obvious to you how many times I wrote “I was like, he was like”. While it’s staring you right in the face at this moment, I am willing to bet my left leg that you have used this exact phrasing when telling someone about that crazy party last night, or about a conversation you had the previous day.

My question is: when did the word like replace the word said in everyday conversation? When did it come to such a bastardization that even Jon Snow couldn’t hold a candle to it?

According to the Oxford Dictionarylike can be formally used as:

  • A simile, where a comparison is drawn between two unlike things using like or as. Historically, this has been one of the chief uses of the word: drawing contrasts. It is also the formal use we learned in English class.
  • It can also be used as a noun when referencing a person or thing of the same kind as another; Oxford Dictionary presents this particular example: “I know him- him and his like”.
  • Finally, the word can also be used to show pleasure towards or enjoyment, but the connotations regarding the relative strength of “liking” someone is a whole different story.

However, the formal use of the word has been challenged several times in history. Flavorwire has written a similar article on the word, including several more examples than I will use. I will instead adopt a more holistic point of view where I examine the evolution of like into both today’s colloquialisms, and what it may evolve into in the future. Nonetheless, here are several progressive examples of how this bastardization has grown:

1) The Winston Cigarettes Ad of 1954 created controversy when it was like: Winston tasted good! Like a cigarette should! This was challenged by prescriptivists arguing that “as” would have been more appropriate. Winston countered with this ad:

Note that the professor depicted is the one correcting the youth, hinting at the ongoing bastardization that is only corrected today in the English classroom. The accompanying jingle was voted the eighth best jingle of the 20th Century by Ad Age, marking its widespread appeal despite the conflict used of like.

2) The Valley Girl song by Frank Zappa in 1982, and Valley Girl movie of 1983 pushed the exaggerated “Valley Girl” image of a young Californian who speaks in a very distinct manner and abuses the word like. Just look at the song for instance:

“Like, oh my god!, Like – totally, Encino is like so bitchin’, There’s like the galleria, And like all these like really great shoe stores, I love going into like clothing stores and stuff, I like buy the neatest mini-skirts and stuff, Its like so bitchin’ ’cause like everybody’s like, Super-super nice…, Its like so bitchin’…”

(pardon the liberal use of the word like, but these are the direct song lyrics)

I remember doing impressions of Valley Girls as a child, but I never imagined that our everyday speech would resemble that of a full-on Valley Girl!

3) Clueless (1995) and Legally Blond (2001) cemented the Valley Girl language in our minds and popularized it. Clueless’ cult-classic status didn’t hurt either. However, the main distinction was that both these movies were just that, movies! With the introduction of shows such as The Hills and Jersey Shore, it was clear that the bastardization of like was here to stay, particularly as “reality TV” demonstrated its use in “reality” (the complete lack of reality in reality television is too long an article to even imagine).

These progressively modern examples highlight just how mainstream the perversion of like has become, but what strikes me as very interesting is the actual people who use it. The teenagers of the 80s were exposed to most of the previous examples, but as adults today they do not use the word quite so liberally as the examples would have you thnik. Instead, it is today’s teenagers who abuse the word uncaringly, and only when one starts thinking about it do they realize just how widespread the problem is in North American culture. I must admit that despite my critique, I am equally guilty of this crime.

In my generation, the word like has taken on many uses that have evolved beyond the Valley Girl image. First, it has become one of the most popular filler words alongside “um”. While “um” is known primarily for its use in giving the speaker time to speak or formulate a sentence, like has become the multipurpose Batman utility belt that is used in just about any situation. The word has been used as an adverb as I mentioned before in the sense of a filler word. Most commonly, the word has been “used to convey a person’s reported attitude or feelings in the form of direct speech (whether or not representing an actual quote” (e.g. “I was like so upset that he dumped me!”). The Oxford Dictionary summed up an entire culture so well in one sentence, I thought it appropriate to include their direct definition.

Sadly, the word like has become even more wrapped up in connotations than its original definition, now being used to imply what someone said or did, someone’s reaction to an event, or even implying a person’s specific degree of feelings for another. Above all, its seems that my generation is completely ignorant to just how well we are truly embodying the mocked “Valley Girl” image of the 80s. The ability to converse without the use of the word seems foreign, just listening to people talk on my morning bus ride to school is evidence enough.

However, there is one subset of the population that will never use the word: immigrants. Being originally born and raised in Romania, I have lived amongst a wide variety of first-generation and second-generation immigrants, and I have found that it is only during the second-generation that the bastardization is meshed with one’s common vocabulary.

Growing up in Canada in the early 2000s, I was raised with the stereotype that Canadians speak English better, but immigrants have a stronger mastery of English grammar. That is to say, many immigrants formally learn English through textbooks in their native countries, or attend English classes in Canada. This introduction to English does not include how to speak like a Valley Girl or how to informally use like. That is why people for whom English is not a first language will rarely if ever use the word in their everyday conversations. This is an excellent test to see whether someone has recently immigrated from a non-English speaking country. However, while English is not my first language, I was young enough to attend the primary school system and pick up the changing colloquialisms that are now becoming more solidified in everyday speech.

The lack of like from immigrants hints at the fact that this abuse is not yet a part of our core dialect. The word has not been adopted in literature, and is rarely found except when the author explicitly uses it for a Valley Girl-esque character. Look at any recent movies as well, one is unlikely to find the word included in any regular conversation between characters (except if one is watching a teen movie, in which case it may very well be every other word). Having lived in Canada my entire English-speaking life, I am uncertain as to the growing misuse of the word in European nations, particularly in the United Kingdom. However, the prevalence of Hollywood and cult movies such as Clueless may help spread the bastardization abroad. Overall, this highlights that the perversion is only speech deep and that formal English may still survive despite what is taking place.

So, what can you do to save the world from this grammatical genocide? First, you will most likely start to pick up on the bastardization everywhere you go. In my personal experience, the movie stereotypes that girls use like the most is outdated, with males using the word just as much as women. One may just associate it more with girls due to the stereotypes created in cinema (see Clueless and Legally Blond), and also due to the image of a “Valley Girl“. Second, try to stop yourself from saying like so much! Use words such as: said, exclaimed, questioned. Heck, you can even alter the tone of your voice to depict two different speakers. You will probably sound quite pretentious, but it’s for a good cause.

And finally, and most importantly, note that this is a growing trend that will only catalyze further bastardizations. As like becomes more used, and unfortunately less criticized, a precedent will be set for texting lingo and social media terms to break in. Gone are the days when the number sign (#) was referred to as the pound sign or number symbol. Now, it is referred to as a hashtag. In my four-year experience as a summer camp counselor, the majority of 8-15 year-olds were unaware what I was referring to when I mentioned the pound sign, responding better when I referred to it as a hashtag. The use of “lol”, “lmao”, and the like is slowly permeating into our common vocabulary. I have personally heard a girl on my bus tell her friend about her difficult course load, and verbally finish the sentence with “#thestruggleisreal” (I may be guilty of this too).

The use of the word may be spurred on when in social settings or when surrounded by others, creating a vicious cycle where one person uses it and the others find it acceptable, further facilitating its use. It is now a fact that like is being used more and more with no signs of slowing down. I will let you know in 10 years when I turn 30 if I still hear my generation using it. But in 10 years time, it may be too late to do anything!

Brands such as Clueless and reality television can rewrite cultural values. As these cultural values are shaped by entertainment, future entertainment will seek to model after the newly-formed cultural ideas, creating an incredible cycle of cultural evolution. The problem arises when cultural values change in a negative way, requiring a greater degree of independence on the part of media and individuals in order to create positive change.

So please, on behalf of the proper English-speaking world, I beg you to do your part in stopping this growing abuse of like! If it isn’t stopped now, like, this trend may very well permeate into, like, future generations, and this bastardized use of like may join selfie in the formal dictionary.


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