On the Use of the Word “Like” in California English
The use of like as a filler word is notoriously associated with the California dialect. Its meaning is frequently misunderstood. True, it is often dropped into colloquial speech in the same way as common filler words such as “um” or “uh.” An example is provided by the original version of the animated television series Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? (Hanna-Barbera, 1969-1970), in which the hippie, stoner, proto-slacker character Shaggy talks with a California twang and introduces nearly every sentence with “like, wow.” This is the most known usage, and the most denounced. The word like, though, is more frequently used by Californians as an adverb or modifier, to indicate a certain indeterminacy in a statement that follows or precedes it.
The Oxford English Dictionary traces this second usage’s print origins to late eighteenth-century England, in Fanny Burney’s epistolary sentimental novel Evelina (1778): “Father grew quite uneasy, like, for fear of his Lordship’s taking offence.”1 Burney’s like is not a filler word. Although deceptively swift and simple, it indicates several complex ideas at once: first, that her father looked as if, or like, he was uneasy in the face of causing offense (similarly to the use of like to create an adjectival ending); second, that fear of offending the Lord was the probable or likely cause of her father’s uneasiness; and finally, that the entire story should be understood as Evelina’s interpretation of what occurred, as a description of what it seemed like to her. She is merely guessing that her father was afraid of causing offense. It is a reasonable guess, but she does not know for certain.
It is important to note that this sentence is found in a letter that Evelina is writing to another character, in which she is reporting events that occurred at a prior time. Her use of like indicates that she is telling the story to the best of her ability, but perhaps not with laser-accuracy. It is a good enough account to commit to paper, but still a conjecture. This is precisely the way that Californians use the term: as economical shorthand to convey that what we are saying is semi-speculative, and that it should be taken not as a literal record, but rather as a roughly accurate account, whether due to the faultiness of memory, our inability to find le mot juste at that particular moment, or the inherent imprecisions of language.
A permutation of this colloquialism is found in Californians’ use of “I was like...” as a synonym for “I said,” “I thought,” or “I felt.” The implication is that what follows is paraphrased rather than verbatim. “I was all...” is sometimes used as a variant of “I was like.” Both of these idiomatic phrases are included in the Oxford English Dictionary:
P8. colloq. (orig. U.S.). to be like: used to report (actual or simulated) direct speech (often expressing a person’s feelings); to say, utter; (also) to say to oneself. Also with all. Frequently in the historic present...Often used to convey the speaker’s response to something…Sometimes also used to introduce a gesture or facial expression evocative of the speaker’s feelings.
The first illustrative quotation for this sub-entry—in the OED, this spot is typically reserved for the first known appearance of the term in print—is the line “She’s like, Oh my God” from Frank and Moon Unit Zappa’s song “Valley Girl,” from the soundtrack to the motion picture Valley Girl (Martha Coolidge, 1983). The song’s title character is a caricatured persona and the subject of much mockery, one of the sources of the idea that California girls are shallow, materialistic, uneducated, and uncultured. But the references to expressions, responses, and feelings are significant, for such things often escape language and can only be conveyed via approximation. The Valley Girl may or may not have actually uttered the words “oh my God;” what is certain is that an equivalent sentiment was present in her reaction.
California English is often perceived as loose, grammatically incorrect, and overly casual compared to other North American dialects. But there’s a strange way—improbably demonstrated by the use of the word “like”—in which it could be thought of as more precise, or rather more nuanced and, in an odd way, more philosophically rigorous. Every story, of necessity, involves a degree of indeterminacy and speculation. Peppering one’s speech with likes is a way of acknowledging this inherent indeterminacy, of signaling that one is always trading in paraphrases and suppositions, in short, of creating space for unknowns. Most of us experience a twinge of uncertainty about the facticity of any given utterance. The tool we call language is, after all, just a jumble of similes and metaphors that have passed into accepted currency, like Nietzsche’s worn coins whose inscriptions can no longer be read:
What, then, is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms—in short, a sum of human relations, which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins.2
The word like is such a coin, and it is a valuable one. It packs a modest Nietzschean treatise on the instability of language into a single, silly little word. As speculators, prospectors, and explorers of uncharted frontiers and deep waters, newcomers to California have had to learn to accept uncertainty, risk, and indetermination, whether as settlers crossing the Sierras during westward colonial expansion, or emigrés crossing the Pacific Ocean from Asia. This uncertainty has curiously passed into our language.
1 Fanny Burney, Evelina, Volume II , letter XIII, p. 222. Cited in the Oxford English Dictionary
2 Friedrich Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lie in a Nonmoral Sense,” in The Portable Nietzsche, trans. Walter Kaufman (New York: Penguin Books, 1982): 46-47.
Excerpted from a book in progress entitled Go West: A Mythology of California’s Silicon Valley.
Homay King is Professor of History of Art and Eugenia Chase Guild Chair in the Humanities at Bryn Mawr College. She is the author of two books: Virtual Memory: Time-based Art and the Dream of Digitality, and Lost in Translation: Orientalism, Cinema, and the Enigmatic Signifier. Her work has appeared in Afterall, Discourse, Film Quarterly, October, and collections including the exhibition catalog for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s China: Through the Looking Glass. She is a member of the Camera Obscura editorial collective.