from First Things
When the 35-year-old man behind me recounts his weekend adventure to a buddy and drops a like into every sentence, another voice pops into my head. It’s 1982, and a fourteen-year-old girl is bleating, “I, like, love going into, like, clothing stores and stuff.…He was, like, freaking me out.…Gag me with a spoon!”
Older readers of this website remember Moon Unit’s father, Frank Zappa, as a renowned, quirky wordsmith in the pop music scene. But the verbal tics of his daughter’s San Fernando Valley peers drove Zappa crazy, and he had to fire back with satire. Indeed, his interspersed commentary in the song treated their speech as a disease: “She’s a Valley Girl / And there is no cure.”
I was just over the hill in Westwood at the time, starting graduate school in English, which would entail teaching freshman composition. Lots of kids from Southern California passed through our classes, but very little Valleyspeak popped up on campus. It was a regional and class marker, not something for intelligent adults. We thought the song a hilarious send-up of teen brainlessness and self-regard. Nobody in college would ever talk that way, and after the song became a hit, with Moon Unit performing on TV and a Hollywood movie inspired by it a year later, any grownup would certainly be embarrassed to utter, “And I was just, like…totally…’n stuff.”
Boy, were we wrong. Now it’s everywhere. The like lingo is the casual language of private affairs and the public square. The adolescence of the ’80s has become the adulthood of the ’10s. Everyone who adopts it confesses to bad grammar and an eighth-grade lexicon, but that doesn’t seem to matter. Apparently, apart from the smothering conformity of mass media and youth culture, the habit offers advantages that overcome the flat stupidity of the habit.