I admit, I say it. Not in a pathological, valley-girl way, but in a casual, filler way. Sometimes it's unconscious, a nervous tick, and other times it punctuates a thought and just sounds right. It's easy, it's colloquial, and it's so widespread that I thought nobody cared anymore. After all, this is a language where BFF can make it into the dictionary!
But this week actress Emma Thompson brought "like" back into the negative spotlight when she lamented that teenagers need to avoid saying it around older, authority figures. Does it even have anything to do with youth at this point? Aren't the teenagers who made it mainstream in the early '80s now in their, like, 40s?
There are several grammatically incorrect ways to use like, but that doesn't make them uncommon. It can indicate exaggeration, as I did above ("in their, like, 40s"); be used to introduce a quote ("she was like"); or signify a gesture, facial expression, or sound ("it was like"). But nowhere is it more common than as a filler (as in "um" or "ah" or "like"), and fillers are nothing new.
John Ayto, editor of the Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang, said fillers are not lazy or sloppy, or a sign of approaching end-times for the English language. "We all use fillers because we can't keep up highly monitored, highly grammatical language all the time," he said. "We all have to pause and think." In fact, Anglo Saxons probably did the same thing.
The reason people like Thompson get so upset with the use of "like" as a filler is because, unlike "um" and "ah," it's an actual word. And if there's one thing word traditionalists don't like, it's when words find breakout success by using themselves in entirely new ways.
I say as long as it's not, like, every other word out of your mouth, you're OK.