So this is a,unbreakable like, a guest post.

In Tina Fey’s new comedy Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, establishing the vicious vacuousness of the disaffected 15 year-old step-daughter is partly achieved by her use of ‘like’ as a hedge or filler.

She dismisses the heroine Kimmy from the room because “We’re, like, in here,” and trying to impress her equally unsympathetic friends she tells them “remember how I was so, like, bummed I had to see my grandparents in California, well I met this surfer, like, blonde blue eyed tan. He called me Kalia which is, like, a Hawaiian princess…”

This shorthand is a straightforward media technique (no doubt as the character develops and matures she will speak in pleasant standard English sentences) building on widely held social prejudice to create conflict between types (Kimmy’s language is the vengeance of the plain-talking 1950s mid-westerner let loose on the big city, but the two of them will meet part way, probably literally on bench in Washington Square.) If you want to stop using ‘like’ yourself, there’s a WikiHow page, with illustrations, that may help.

But why does it bother us so much? Let’s go back to Frank Zappa, always a reasonable source to revert to, who claimed the credit for identifying the Valley Girl phenomenon and opening the ‘valspeak’ sociolect to audiences beyond Southern California. His Valley Girl song, written and performed with Moon Unit, lampooned the privileged daughters of the rich in the San Fernando Valley and their desultory expression. Their linguistic laziness, has, it appears, infected us all now, and valspeak, with its rising intonation and use of the work ‘like’ as a filler or hedge, is another sign of a wider cultural malaise.

There is, however, another dimension to it. When young women parade their privilege by dismissing linguistic norms, they are castigated for their lack of mental sharpness; we can’t permit their casual insouciance.   A friend of mine, male, married, a father, with a white-collar job, recently told a story about his work-day where I counted seventeen uses of the word ‘like.’ He wouldn’t be assumed to be using the filler to mask a dearth of cerebral activity, he was just slowing down the story to reach for the next description to aid the drama of the telling.

If language is about power- to express and codify, communicate and categorize- then the debate about ‘like’ has to be viewed in these terms too; who is in control here? When people use the word to fill a pause or add emphasis they are attempting to control their expression, finding room for the next thought or enjoining the listener to participate in their feelings. We too are exerting power on the speaker, receiving their expression and re-coding it through our thoughts.

In every case we have to fight any prejudice that makes young people, and young women in particular, silent. So let’s re-think ‘like.’


Hugh Kesson teaches Media Studies at Brooklyn College, City University of New York. His blog needs a bit of work, but he’s quite proud of the ‘Some Basics’ section.


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