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Actually, Like Cures Like (?)

By Anatoly Liberman

This blog deals with etymology, but its goal is broader: it is open to questions about any aspect of language history. Therefore, today I will take the liberty of reconstructing not a word but the origin of an element of usage. “Will you teach this course again, like, next year?” a student asked me. “Not bloody likely,” I shot back. The youngster went away slightly embarrassed: he did not recognize the famous quotation. I believe the epidemic of the filler like broke out not so long ago; it hardly antedates the middle of the 20th century. The disease is “social” and is not isolated. Another horror is you know, whose age is probably not too great either. The earliest example of it I chanced to run into occurs in Little Dorrit, published in 1857. According to Dickens, the country of that time was run by the Circumlocution Office and by the aristocratic clan of the Barnacles, who were ubiquitous and extremely efficient in thwarting anyone’s efforts to disturb them. One of the characters attempts to unravel the fraud that sent Mr. Dorrit to prison. The Barnacles shuttle him from one member of the clan to another, and the Barnacle who was finally made to say something complained to his colleague: “He wanted to know, you know.” Dickens’s ear was always attuned to the latest slang and the most recent usage. Apparently, by the fifties of the 19th century, you know had raised its ugly head.

Fillers are convenient. Most people talk a lot but have little to say. Like and you know lengthen the utterance and appear to increase its weight. They also give the speaker extra time for deciding what to say next. Ideal conversations have no content and are a hundred percent formulaic (–How are you? –Thank you, I am fine, and how are you? –Also fine, but John had an accident. –I am so sorry. Nothing serious, I hope. Oh, really? Well, I must be going. It was nice talking to you. See you. –Take care). They consist of readymade blocks, and their only meaning is to indicate contact. Whether John is alive or dead plays no role. But in other situations, interlocutors are supposed to “share ideas,” however trivial, and this is where fillers come in useful, for they partly disguise the vapidity of the exchange. Yet their main importance lies elsewhere. We are so touchy. Nothing is easier than to hurt someone’s sensibilities. Like is a shield of politeness between the speakers. “Will you teach this course, like, next year?” No, I am not suggesting that you will. I am not even making an enquiry about next year. My temerity does not go beyond asking whether you may perhaps offer the course I need some time in the future (no offence meant). And if not plan, I hope that no offence has been taken. A similar shield is you know. He came, you know, and sat down in the first row, you know. Wasn’t it funny? Perhaps it was not funny at all, and possibly you had no intention to laugh, but you have been taken into the speaker’s confidence: you know that he came (do you?) and sat in the first row reserved for the dignitaries (you know that too, don’t you). You are the speaker’s trusted ally, you know everything before it is said. You won’t let down such a good friend, will you? In such circumstances it would be awful not to laugh, you know.

I settled in Minnesota more than thirty years ago, and one of the first things I noticed was that nearly every oral statement ended with a perceptible rise of the voice. “The bus stop is round the corner…” Where I have dots the sentence broke off at a high note, as though it were unfinished. I felt puzzled: did I hear reliable directions, or was it a question? Later I got used to this intonation and learned to understand the administrators’: “There will be no raise for two years…” No question, no raise; only a rise of the voice. The function of the rise is the same as that of like and you know. Speakers instinctively safeguard themselves. To be sure, the bus stops round the corner, but if it does not (you never can tell: police order or something), I warned you. And although your salary will be frozen, the unpalatable truth was expressed so inoffensively, so hesitatingly that it would be boorish to complain. A whole gamut of feelings brings out the fillers and a special intonation: insecurity, affectation, a fear of a putdown, and sham politeness. None of this means that speakers are conscious of such feelings. We learn to speak from those who surround us, and, once our habits are internalized, they become automatic. In trying to guess the origin of some such habits, three of which may have the same causes, I hope I did not sound too elitist and did not produce a hostile environment for my readers….

Once I was interviewed on the subject of like, and the interviewer remarked: “But people stop using the fillers when they write.” This is true. “We have, like, three cats and a dog, you know” looks silly on paper. But people are so resourceful! Instead of you know they write (and of course, often say) actually. I have once noted in this blog that grading students’ papers need not be looked upon as an unwelcome chore, for to a linguist they are an inestimable source of inspiration. In similar fashion, the great scholar Otto Jespersen observed that phoneticians are never bored: however stupid a talk at a conference may be, they can always study the speaker’s accent. Young people won’t be tampered with, and it is thanks to them that language changes. On every page I read, I expect to see and cross out from five to six occurrences of actually. “The peace treaty was actually signed between the countries. It actually happened ten years after the beginning of the war. Actually, the peace was broken very soon,” and so on. This is a naïve attempt at self-assertion, born of the same lack of confidence that produces oral fillers and the rising intonation. You may not believe me that the peace treaty was signed, but it actually was. Don’t worry. I believe you. No problem.

I formulated the theory expounded above rather long ago, but after an interview appeared in the local newspaper, a colleague sent me an article by Jason Horowitz. Its title is “City Girl Squawk: It’s like So Bad—It. Really. Sucks?” (New York Observer, 3/27/2006). I found all my favorite examples in it, including the pernicious rise at the end of an affirmative sentence (in New York, not in the Midwest), and the author comes to the conclusions close to mine. It was after reading Horowitz’s article that I decided to devote a post to fillers and their kin.

Can anything be done about such woes (assuming that they are woes)? Some people speak only to be heard. To others language is a garden in need of cultivation. Since the second group is in the minority, the first group will prevail, “corruption” will spread, and language gardeners will always have something to do. Likewise, some people wear fancy clothes, others buy expensive jeans torn at the knees. Diversity.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to blog.us@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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