When Caroline Kennedy managed to say “you know” more than 200 times in an interview with the New York Daily News, and on 130 occasions while talking to The New York Times during her uninspired attempt to become a hereditary senator, she proved, among other things, that she was (a) middle-aged and (b) middle class. If she had been a generation younger and a bit more déclassé, she would have been saying “like.” When asked if the Bush tax cuts should be repealed, she responded: “Well, you know, that’s something, obviously, that, you know, in principle and in the campaign, you know, I think that, um, the tax cuts, you know, were expiring and needed to be repealed.”
This is an example of “filler” words being used as props, to try to shore up a lame sentence. People who can’t get along without “um” or “er” or “basically” (or, in England, “actually”) or “et cetera et cetera” are of two types: the chronically modest and inarticulate, and the mildly authoritarian who want to make themselves uninterruptible.
Many parents and teachers have become irritated to the point of distraction at the way the weed-style growth of “like” has spread through the idiom of the young. And it’s true that in some cases the term has become simultaneously a crutch and a tic, driving out the rest of the vocabulary.
It was then a part of the Californianization of American youth-speak. In an analysis Penelope Eckert and Norma Mendoza-Denton phrase matters this way: “One of the innovative developments in the white English of Californians is the use of the discourse-marker ‘I’m like’ or ‘she’s like’ to introduce quoted speech, as in ‘I’m like, where have you been?’ This quotative is particularly useful because it does not require the quote to be of actual speech (as ‘she said’ would, for instance). A shrug, a sigh, or any of a number of expressive sounds as well as speech can follow it.”
It can be used as a pause or a colon: very handy for spinning out a mere anecdote into a playlet that’s full of parody and speculation. And also of hyperbole, as in “She’s been out with, like, a million guys.”
The little cringe and hesitation and approximation of “like” are a help to young people who are struggling to negotiate the shoals and rapids of ethnic identity, the street, and general correctness. To report that “he was like, Yeah, whatever” is to struggle to say “He said” while minimizing the risk of commitment.
The actual grammatical battle was probably lost as far back as 1954, when Winston announced that its latest smoke “tasted good, like a cigarette should.” Complaints from sticklers that this should have been “as a cigarette should”were met by a second ad in which a gray-bunned schoolmarm type was taunted by cheery consumers asking, “What do you want, good grammar or good taste?” Usage of “like” has now almost completely replaced “as” .
How could one preserve what’s useful about “like” without allowing it to reduce everyday vocabulary? The restoration of the word “as,” which isn’t that hard a word to master, along with “such as,” would also be a help in varying the national lingo. A speech idiosyncrasy, in the same way as an air quote, is really justifiable only if it’s employed very sparingly and if the user consciously intends to be using it. Just to try to set an example，I have managed to write all the above without using the word once, except in inverted commas. Why not try it? You might, like, like it.