Like, Totally: A Brief History of “Like” in Pop Culture


Recently we read yet another article about the word “like” as used by those darn kids today. We feel like we’ve been reading incarnations of this article since we became aware of the phenomenon, a verbal tic that, like it or not, has been more or less embraced by youths and even adults since the ’60s. However you characterize it — a “filler” word, a nonsense qualifier, or, as we used to insist to our parents, a way of tempering whatever you’re talking about — it’s like, pretty much here to stay.

For proof, we’ve put together a brief history of the most prominent appearances of the “like” craze in pop culture, from a 1920s New Yorker cartoon to Clueless. Indeed, almost as soon as the word rose to prominence, the pop cultural references began to be self-aware, if not flat-out self-mocking. Shaggy’s surfer-dude lingo is already half-ironic, and of course by the time Zappa got his hands on “Valspeak” in the early ’80s it was already something to be cruelly satirized. However, this hasn’t staunched the flow, and teenagers continue to use the word willy nilly, no matter how their teachers wail. Click through to see some of our favorite ‘like’ abusers in pop culture, and let us know how you feel about the word in the comments.

A cartoon in The New Yorker, September 15, 1928

This is one of the first recorded appearances of this kind of usage, or at least the earliest that we could dig up. Even in the cartoon’s context, it seems unwieldy and out of place, not quite settled into the collective consciousness yet.

The Beats in the 1950’s

Like that’s your reality, man. The Beats were notorious for their laid-back, stoner style lingo, all hip to the jive and whatever. For better or for worse, they pushed the use of “like” — albeit in a particular usage that is not common in casual speech anymore — to a greater prominence.

Maynard G. Krebs, on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, 1959 to 1963

Maynard was American TV’s first beatnik, and what an over-exaggerated beatnik he was. If this was ever an accurate portrayal of beatnik speech, which we rather doubt, we’re happy to report that most people have scaled back since then.

A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess, 1962

This is one of the first uses of the word in literature, as Burgess’s evilly hip Droog spits, “I, like, didn’t say anything.” Again, the word seems a little intrusive, but we’re getting there.

Shaggy in Scooby Doo, 1969

“Like, wow, Scoob!” As far as we can tell, Shaggy’s manner of speech was half in jest and half a pretty fair attribute for his character. They did drive around in that van after all, and everyone knows what went on in there.

Frank Zappa and Moon Unit Zappa, “Valley Girl,” 1982

By this time, the trend was widespread enough that the cooler-than-cool Zappa family deemed it worthy to mock:

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’…

Valley Girl, 1983

This film, loosely based on Romeo and Juliet, proves that people who say “like” are people too — and even further, worthy of love from Hollywood punk Nicolas Cage.

Sir Mix-a-Lot, “Baby Got Back,” 1992

Just so everyone knows that the Valley Girl moniker is only for stereotypical white girls: “Oh, my, god. Becky, look at her butt. It is so big. She looks like, one of those rap guys’ girlfriends. Who understands those rap guys? They only talk to her because she looks like a total prostitute, ‘kay? I mean, her butt, is just so big. I can’t believe it’s just so round, it’s like, out there, I mean – gross. Look! She’s just so … black!”

Clueless, 1995

The quintessential Valley Girls. Clueless was one of the most potent Valspeak touchstones for ’80s babies, purely because of its ubiquitousness and of course, classic status. Cher in particular singlehandedly elevated the Valley Girl with her sweet demeanor and how she totally schooled that one girl on Hamlet: “Well, I remember Mel Gibson accurately, and he didn’t say that. That Polonius guy did.”

Legally Blonde, 2001

Legally Blonde‘s Elle Woods is basically a slightly older, more exaggerated version of Clueless‘ Cher — only with a tiny Chihuahua and a greater affinity for all things hot pink. In one of the film’s pivotal scenes, Elle’s ex-boyfriend Warner Huntington III is surprised to see that the former president of Delta Nu has been accepted as a student at Harvard Law, to which she deadpans, “What? Like, it’s hard?”

The Hills, 2006-2010

The most famous “real” Valley Girls. Of course, they’re still being mocked, but for all intents and purposes they sound like normal (insanely privileged, reality TV star) girls, and appear to be speaking without any trace of irony. Even the mocking sounds a little overdone — they’re being drippy, we get it. Just tell us what Spencer said!

Jersey Shore‘s Ronnie and Sammi on Jimmy Kimmel Live, 2011

Perhaps showing the word come out of the mouths of the insane cast members of Jersey Shore isn’t a good indication that the usage is truly widespread, but consider the fact that Jimmy Kimmel uses “like” at least as many times as Sammi. The conclusions you draw from that may depend on your opinion of Jimmy Kimmel, but we think it’s fair to say that the term has penetrated at least a few social levels.