Why We Use the Filler Word “Like”
  • 3-minute read
  • 17th May 2022

Why We Use the Filler Word “Like”

“Like” is a word that many people, especially younger ones, use a lot, and it drives language sticklers crazy. In today’s post, we look at what this word means and why it’s so popular.

A Short History of “Like”

“Like” has been a versatile word for many centuries. As a preposition, it comes from the Old English gelic, which means with the same form. We use it to say that one thing resembles another:

Her hair is like silk.

My shoes are like yours.

The verb “like” has its roots in another Old English word, lician, meaning to please or be suitable. Nowadays, it refers to the positive way a person feels about something:

I like your new hairstyle.

Would you like a biscuit?

Nobody likes pineapple on pizza.

However, at one time, it was used differently. Up until the late 14th century, it was the object that did the liking, and its meaning was to find favor with. So, it would’ve been more usual to say, “Your new hairstyle likes me.”

Moreover, “like” can be used as a noun:

We made a list of our likes and dislikes.

My Facebook post has over 100 likes.

“Like” as a Filler Word

The above examples show that “like” can be used in many ways and that its purpose has changed over the years. More recently, though, “like” has become a common filler word, indicating a pause of hesitation in speech. But unlike some filler words, “like” can imply a range of things.

In some cases, using “like” can add emphasis:

My mom was, like, so angry.

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The speaker here uses “like” as an intensifier to stress how infuriated their mother was.

“Like” can also lessen the impact of the words that follow it:

My teacher says I’m going to, like, fail my exams.

Adding “like” before “fail my exams” provides a slight pause before the difficult news that comes next.

Another use of “like” is to suggest anticipation of the hearer’s disbelief:

I mean, like, literally all of them.

This “like” dictates that the word “literally” is to be taken literally! By using “like” here, the speaker indicates that they expect the listener to need convincing.

Or “like” can indicate a non-literal use, such as metaphor or hyperbole:

My dad will, like, go ballistic.

“Like” is used here to show that the speaker is not talking literally. They’re not expecting their father to fly through the air in an arching trajectory, so they indicate their metaphorical use of words by adding “like.”

Finally, “like” can indicate speech:

He was, like, “Work hard and you’ll get good grades.”

“Like” is often used instead of a dialogue tag (e.g., he said), but it signifies that the speaker is summarizing what was said rather than repeating it word-for-word.

Summary: Is “Like” a Lazy Word?

Some language pedants think people use “like” as a meaningless filler word, like “ah” and “er.” However, as the examples above show, “like” has many subtly different meanings.

Having said all that, most dictionaries don’t yet recognize the uses of “like” that we’ve discussed above. So, you should stick to the traditional uses of “like” in your writing, unless you’re creating fictional dialogue, where adding the odd “like” will make it feel more realistic.

And if you need any help with your written vocabulary, our proofreaders are like, totally brilliant. We’ll even check the first 500 words for like, literally nothing!

Comments (2)
Marc Bouttenot
30th May 2022 at 16:42
I applaud your blog for being attentive to our beautiful language and the precision with which we employ it. I especially enjoyed the "big, bad wolf" issue because it explained why we are accustomed to words in a certain order. I might add to that understanding a possible vedic root of sequential unfoldment of sound and language. The first word of Rig Ved is "Agnim ile..." which has the "A" coming first but then the "i". Just a thought that perhaps the sequence of the vowels arises from the fundamental sounds of Nature. Now as to the use of the word "like," I feel you may be too charitable in attributing nuances of meaning in the way it is used. I like that you have done this but my sensibility to the language is not so kind. When people say, "She was like, so happy."" I have the uneasy sense that the speaker does not have the grasp of the power of words to give expression to their observation. The use of "like" is a crutch based on a fundamental mistrust of the language. Whether that mistrust is due to lack of education, or the essential vageness of our common experience, or the need for tentativeness in expressing ourselves so as to avoid recrimination. All these warnings are a qucksand for the strength of our language. "We hold these truths to be like self evident." We are no longer in the same country. Love you guys.
    31st May 2022 at 10:16
    Thanks for your comment, Marc. We'd broadly agree that "like" is still a filler word for the most part, but it is interesting to think about how it differs from other fillers, like "umms" and "aahs," in terms of how it affects the sentence it appears within. And we need to recognize that language changes. As a result, if the widespread use of "like" continues, it is likely that uses along the lines discussed here will eventually enter dictionaries, even if it might be a long time before they're considered acceptable in formal writing!

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