Liking "Like:" Wherein Christopher Hitchens Discovers Valley Girls

Illustration for article titled Liking "Like:" Wherein Christopher Hitchens Discovers Valley Girls

It appears Christopher Hitchens has finally seen Clueless, because he's come up with a decades-too-late analysis — and mild condemnation — of the word "like."

Hitchens opines,

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 as candy expels vegetables.


Candy expelling vegetables is sort of a funny mental image, but the rest of this is worth another word that has spread through the idiom of the young (where "young" means anyone under about forty-five): duh. Hitchens quotes some linguists on the use of "like" in reported speech, ("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?'"), and notes its connection to "uptalk" ("I go to Columbia University?") but really the only surprising thing about his piece is how the word has trickled up from the mallrats of the 70s and 80s to the sages of the literary establishment. To whit:

Ian McEwan rather surprised me when I asked him about "like," telling me that "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."

I can't help but be amused at Hitchens and McEwan chortling over the dialect I grew up speaking (Clueless was shot partially at my local mall), but what's kind of tone-deaf about Hitchens's "like"-hate is how widespread that dialect has become. Largely because of the movie industry (I'd also be interested to hear an analysis of the word "like" in porn), everybody knows Valley-girl-speak. That's why comments about Gabourey Sidibe talking "like a white girl from the Valley" weren't just, as Latoya wrote, "flattening," they were also silly: "like" isn't just for white girls anymore, and in an age of ubiquitous mass media, no dialect is wholly regional or racial. There's a conversation to be had about whether certain privileged dialects are crowding out others, and about whether a time when every place had a unique argot was in some ways a richer time. But that's far beyond the scope of Hitchens's piece.


Hitchens concludes with the observation,

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-comparing "like" to "like," as you might say-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.


I tried it; I did it; it's easy. But while we've been axing a lot of words here recently, I'd argue that "like" should stay. Banning it at this point reminds me of my junior high school banning beepers when the kids were all using cell phones already. Memo to anyone still talking about this lexical "weed": it's time to find something hipper to hate.

The Other L-Word [Vanity Fair]

Share This Story

Get our `newsletter`


Lin-Z [linguist on duty]

I'm sure I've said this before, but I'm going to say it again

*puts on linguist hat*

I wish I could remember the study, but of course I can't. But, 'like' tends to be used for reporting what others said. It is used to convey that what one is reporting is not necessarily verbatim. By using like, one can include their own opinions about what was said. As opposed to using 'said' which is a direct report of what someone actually said.

So let's stop being prescriptive grammarians for a few minutes and just realize that this is part of how people speak now.