Why Americans throw 'like' in the middle of sentences

  • "Like" is one of the most abused words in the English language. It's so versatile and can be used in almost any sentence.
  • The word was first popularized by the Beatniks in the 1950's as a sign of being cool.
  • The word only reached mainstream popularity in the 1980's after the song "Valley Girl" became widely recognized.
  • Now, the word "like" exists across every form of media and constantly evolves to remain part of the English language.
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Following is a transcript of the video.

Narrator: So you're, like, talking to your friends or coworkers, and you notice this strange pattern.

David Anderson: This happened, like, five minutes ago.

Abby Tang:We've been friends for, like, like, 11 years.

Medha Imam: And then I was like, "Hello?" And I was like, "Please, can I have my ticket?"


Irene Kim: I'm always weird about, like, well, like, they wanted to watch it together, and I was like, well, I don't wanna sit there with them.

Narrator: Like it or hate it, you can actually hear the word "like" everywhere, from celebrities...

Kim Kardashian West: But, like, if they ask about your lips, like, own up to it.

Narrator: To movies.

Cher: But people came that, like, did not RSVP. So I was, like, totally buggin'.

Narrator: And, yes, our own mouths.

David: I say like all the time. Narrator: And most of the time...

Abby: No, I do not notice that I'm saying like. Unless it's, like...oh, now I do!

Narrator: So, where exactly did this annoying trend begin? And more importantly, why?

Believe it or not, the way we use like can be traced back as far as the late 19th century. Right here on the pages from the 1886 Scottish novel "Kidnapped" by Robert Louis Stevenson. But it wasn't until the 1950s that a certain group brought the word to spotlight: The Beat Generation.

The young, rebellious Beat Generation soon picked up the interjection as a sign of cool, and it was used so frequently that it turned into a trope for any beatnik characters in pop culture.

Spook: Like, how should I know, Jazz? Like, he never tells me nothing.

Dobie: What's that on your chin?

Maynard: Can't you tell, man? It's, like, a beard.

Shaggy: Like, next time, signal!

Scooby: Sorry!

Narrator: The Beats played an important role in introducing the new use of like to a larger audience, especially the younger generations. And 20 years later, when the word rose to prominence once again, it wasn't from the rebellious Beat writers in bars, but from the young girls in the malls of San Fernando Valley. And they had a name for themselves.

Reporter: They're high-school girls with a lingo, style of dress, and philosophy all their own. They are: Valley girl!

Narrator: The Valley girl was a socioeconomic stereotype referring to the young, upper-class white girls living in the San Fernando Valley. These girls were known for spending days at the mall and dressing head to toe in pink, but what stood out the most was the way they spoke.

Moon Zappa: And think of the muscles straining and the jaw being, like, pulled out. Make it seem as if it's rolling off your tongue. Let's try: Barf out, I am sure!

Narrator: It even had its own name: Valley speak. It was what linguists call a sociolect, a set of dialect, slang, and words used by a specific class of people. It includes words and phrases like tubular, totally, grody, gag me with a spoon, some of which are still used today. And, of course, the word like. But it was still just a regional phenomenon, until a single record changed all of that.

♪ Valley girl ♪ ♪ She's a Valley girl ♪

Narrator: In 1982, musician Frank Zappa and his daughter Moon Zappa released their single "Valley Girl," a novelty song written to mock and satirize the Valley girl culture. To their surprise, the song was a massive hit, peaking at No. 32 on the Billboard chart, and was even nominated for a Grammy. The song that was meant to be a parody had ironically turned Valley girls and Valley speak into a national phenomenon.

Frank Zappa: I've been doing this for almost 20 years, and this is the most successful record that has ever occurred, and the only reason that it's successful is because it's an accident.

Narrator: The Valley girls had turned from a stereotype that symbolized Southern California's shallow materialism into a cool, idolized icon. And the Californian entertainment industry only fueled its spread, this time in movies and TV shows. A year after the song's release, films like "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" and "Valley Girl" were made to quickly take advantage of the trend, which then led to other movies and shows, like "Clueless," "Mean Girls," and "Beverly Hills, 90210," all targeting a younger demographic. Although pop culture has contributed to the word's widespread popularity, linguists have come to believe that it might also be because of how we use the word.

Abby: Yeah, everyone says like. It's just the way people, like, talk.

Narrator: The word originally began with just two definitions, the verb from the Old English "lician" meaning, to feel attracted towards, and the adjective from the Old English "lich," meaning similar to. But over time, it's not developed one, but four more definitions, each serving an entirely different purpose. Like the quotative, used to quote our own or someone else's words.

Medha: She was just like, "Hey, do you have PayPal?" And I was like, "I don't have PayPal, I have Venmo."

Narrator: A filler mainly used for pause and flow.

Irene: It was really just amazing. Like, I kept thinking about it afterwards.

Narrator: An adverb, also known as a hedge, that's used for approximation.

David: This happened, like, five minutes ago.

Narrator: And what's known as a discourse particle, to emphasize a point.

Abby: She has this bananas phobia of blood. Like, it's... she's completely, like, debilitated.

Narrator: And that's not all. Recent studies have suggested that the word might also have a social function, acting as a cue to seem informal and friendly, another reason why it's so prevalent among young girls. Over the years, the way we use like has been used as a prime example of how younger generations are destroying the English language. The internet is full of advice on how to stop saying the word, and schools have gone as far as to ban their students from saying it. But chances are, they won't work. If history has proven one thing, language evolves and spreads, no matter what we want. So as long as we continue to speak, how we say like is, like, not going anywhere.

[Irene laughing]

Irene: I did think of that, 'cause I was like, I think I'm saying like a little bit too often. But, no, I was being framed.

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